Net Neutrality As Campaign Finance Reform

It is quite possible that the most important piece of campaign finance reform to pass in 2006 will be Senator Wyden’s “Internet Non-Discrimination Act of 2006.” Until now the internet did not require candidates to raise huge amounts of money to pay for the ability to reach voters. Without Net Neutrality, all that changes. The internet will increasingly come to resemble radio, television and cable, where the well-funded buy their way onto your screen and the rest get crowded out. Not because of any evil corporate conspiracy or antidemocracy cabal, but because of the iron rules of economics.

If companies can make money charging political speakers for premium access, they will. If that’s bad for democracy and free speech, too bad. Companies aren’t in business to promote democracy, but to maximize value for shareholders. If that means that well-funded candidates and talk radio hosts can buy “premium” access while independent bloggers and pod casters can’t, that’s what will happen. Too bad about that democracy and free speech thing. Nothing against it you understand but, y’know, it’s just business.

Publically traded companies exist for one purpose — to maximize shareholder value. According to free market boosters, that’s what makes them so incredibly efficient and wonderful. As a result, they will maximize revenue wherever permitted. They are not about promoting free speech or democracy. While that may be fine when two appliance companies try to sell you different brands of toasters, it can cause all kinds of “unintended consequences” in the “marketplace of ideas.”

Given the drive to maximize revenue, it’s not surprising that recently deregulated cable broadband and DSL providers have started looking at how to make money from charging people who want to send streaming media, bulk email or other “bandwidth intensive content or services” to their subscribers.

So far, these companies have targeted big money companies (like Google) or big traffic customers (like “spammers”). But it’s only a matter of time before these companies notice how much money gets spent in political campaigns and decide to get a piece of that. After all, candidates need to reach people just as much as Google does, and will pay handily for the privilege.

Nor is it only candidates who will find their political speech dramatically restricted. Remember the flash animation by jibjab.com that mocked the presidential candidates in 2004, or all the folks like Moveon.org who put video clips or audio clips online for download? If it takes forever to download because they can’t afford the “premium” delivery, people will use these resouces less or stop altogether. If people have to pay extra to receive an email with a streaming media attachment because Time Warner or Qwest decides to charge extra for receiving media files in order to “more efficiently manage bandwidth,” most subscribers won’t want to pay. On the other hand, subscribers will receive (whether they want to or not) well funded expertly produced “messaging” downloads for free at super speeds that play with movie-like quality.

Perhaps most importantly, what happens to the ability of people to use the internet to research candidates and positions, or who want to forward useful or amusing political speech to others? According to this study by the PEW Center for American Life, people used the internet to talk to their friends about political issues, visit websites that provided greater details than avialable offline, and were more likely to participate in political discusions and check out alternate points of view. If it costs someone extra money or becomes frustratingly slow to use the internet for these purposes, they stop; and we as a society go back to getting all our political information through sound bites.

Anyone familiar with the cost of running a political campaign knows how this works in broadcasting. Political candidates want the best, most expensive commercial time when everyone is watching. So they pay through the nose for 30 seconds of prime time advertising instead of a half-hour infomercial at 1 a.m. So if it costs extra to deliver my video clips or clever animation to voters, expect candidates and special interest lobbying groups to pay.

Until now, the internet has acted as a medium that levels barriers for speakers by allowing anyone to speak directly to anyone else at anytime and on the same terms. Bloggers and podcasters speak to audiences as small as a few friends or as large as millions, all for the same cost. People email each other video and audio clips or flash animation. Candidates and interest groups from the most progressive to the most conservative continue to experiment with news ways to use the internet to reach people that traditional media makes prohibitively expensive.

But if such “high bandwidth” traffic slows to a crawl unless the speaker pays for “premium” delivery, the same thing will happen to the internet that happened to television and cable. Well funded candidates and special interests will pay to have slickly produced “content” and “issue ads” that download at super-speed in movie quality. Independent blogs and podcasts that can’t afford the extra fee will be crowded out. Once again, the need for big money will “blind the eyes of the righteous and pervert the words of the wise” (Deut. 16:19) by driving candidates to court big donors at the expense of public policy and put fund-raising ahead of public service.

People who view Net Neutrality as a fight between rival companies and worry about anticompetitive practices often float the idea of allowing broadband providers to charge for “premium” access, but to require the broadband providers to offer it to everyone on equal terms. That works to protect Barnes and Noble from shutting out Amazon.com, or perhaps even to stop Verizon from blocking VOIP competitors like Vonage. But it doesn’t do anything about the problem of shifting the internet from a level playing field for political speech to yet another medium where political speakers must pay for access. Applying the laws of supply and demand to the “marketplace of ideas” as if it were the same as the market for toasters is a disaster for democracy.

Again, the history of broadcasting shows us that private companies are endlessly inventive in finding ways to maximize revenue with no concerns for any “collateral damage” to democracy. By law, television and radio broadcasters cannot discriminate against political candidates. If a broadcaster sells or donates time to one candidate, it must sell or give time to all other candidates on equal terms. Broadcasters must accept any content a candidate provides, of any length the candidate wants to buy, and show it at any time the candidate wants. Finally, to prevent broadcasters from gouging candidates during campaign season, broadcasters must offer candidates the “lowest unit rate” (lowest rate charged to best regular advertiser for comparable time).

In other words, the law prevents discrimination in broadcasting as rigorously as possible while still allowing the broadcaster to charge more for prime time (“premium”) service. That hasn’t stopped broadcasters from figuring out how to charge all the market will bear for political advertising and turning it into a huge windfall – albeit with some unfortunate “collateral damage” to democracy.

I don’t think Comcast and AT&T are any less clever than CBS or ABC. Requiring broadband providers like Time Warner and Verizon to sell “premium” delivery on equal terms to everyone may make it possible for Apple’s iTunes to compete with Wall-Mart’s music store, but it doesn’t help Daily Kos or RedState.org.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore) has introduced a bill called the “Internet Non-Discrimination Act of 2006.” The Wyden bill absolutely prohibits a broadband access provider from forcing third parties to pay extra for faster access to subscribers. This contrasts with the approach taken by Senator John Ensign (R-NV), whose rewrite of the Telecom Act prevents outright blocking of any content or service but allows broadband providers to charge for “premium” access to subscribers.

But the issue isn’t as simple as blocked or not blocked. Any candidate that wants to buy an ad on television or the radio can absolutely do so. If they can afford it.

Critics of Net Neutrality portray it as a fight between big companies like AT&T and Comcast v. huge companies like Microsoft and Google. They argue that big companies will look after themselves and we should let the free market decide.

But the free market doesn’t look after democracy or political speech. It can’t. The iron laws of economics that drive the NBCs and Clear Channels of the world to charge political candidates “all the market will bear” apply with equal force to Verizon or AOL. If we want to keep the internet we have today, where any candidate or podcaster or average Jane can speak and hope to get heard, we can’t leave it to “the free market.” The big companies will look out for themselves; only Congress can look out for democracy.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted March 9, 2006 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Amen.

  2. Thomas
    Posted March 27, 2006 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    I think you are making all this up. It already cost big bucks to reach an effective manner key audiences on the internet. Candidates don’t just set up a web site and start streaming videos to people — they have to promote the site; reach people; persuade them to visit the sites, register and accept e-mail from them.

    The efforts by telcos or cable companies to offer select or premium access services don’t impact this. Nor has anyone indicated that there will be a charge for user generated content.

    The real gatekeepers are those who reach millions of eye-balls on the net, just like on TV. I think their names are Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

    There are plenty of reasons to worry about the governance and architecture of the net; and there should be authority in a competent body to act quickly if need be. I wonder if such a body really exists. I don’t think we should try and prescribe detailed rules on anything right now, other than general style principals.

    The sky isn’t falling Mrs. Little.

  3. Harold
    Posted March 27, 2006 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Comment to fellow Wetmachiners: Look! Our first professional troll!

  4. mitchipd
    Posted May 12, 2006 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    To Thomas: The sky has already fallen so far on democracy in this country that it may be hard to notice the most recent movements, or those looming on the horizon.
    To Harold. A good and important post. We’re thinking along the same lines:
    http://www.ipdemocracy.com/

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