By Daryl Bassett, former Utility Commissioner, Arkansas Public Service Commission
I’ve spent over twenty years convening diverse groups of people and organizations around the causes that can help improve our society. Success in bringing about social change relies not only on passion for seeing a more equitable and just world, but relies also on accuracy of the information exchanged between myself and the groups I bring together. From accuracy flows the transparency, credibility, and trust that form the bedrock of relationships going forward. It also goes a long way in presenting an image to the public that the coalition you build is one that should be taken seriously; a coalition that is empowered and can help infuse empowerment.
That is why I am, to put it lightly, befuddled by an article published in April on the website Fusion.net that argues if the Federal Communications Commission’s proposed rules to allow broadband providers to charge content providers for providing faster lanes for their content were in place at the time of Trayvon Martin’s death, his story would not have been catapulted to national view.
First, let’s look at what we know of the proposed rules. The proposed rules have three main components.
The first component is an anti-blocking provision that basically prohibits an Internet service provider (ISP)from preventing a consumer from accessing legal content from any website. So whether you want to visit the website of either The New York Times or General Motors, you will be able to reach either site.
The second component is closely related to the first. Your ISP, say Charter Communications, cannot discriminate among the content flowing from The New York Times or General Motors. They would have to treat them equally when it comes to their speed of traffic. In other words, the ISP could not throttle the download speeds of either content provider.
The first two components are not controversial. Internet access providers have been adhering to these principles since consumers had commercial access to the Internet. It’s simply not good business to block consumer access to websites or arbitrarily choose which website would be the content provider of the day. Consumers would think twice about adopting broadband and the value of the network to investors would decrease.
However, the third component of the proposed rules is the source of the controversy. This component allows content providers and ISP’s to enter an arrangement where, for a fee, the ISP opens up a faster lane for the content provider. For a company like Netflix which now accounts for 31% of traffic flowing through the Internet, the extra lane goes a long way to ensuring consumers get a quality of video experience. Nothing is wrong with that. What is wrong, however, is implying that this type of arrangement would prevent us from getting important issues in front of national media. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I would argue the opposite.
The anti-blocking and anti-discrimination principles already in place when Trayvon Martin was killed ensured that websites and blogs kept the passing of Mr. Martin in the community’s consciousness. Access to these blogs and websites were not blocked by ISPs. No amount of web speed, however, would have garnered his story national media attention. It was the tenacity of his family and their legal team that got him the media attention he deserved.
Allowing arrangements where a content provider pays an ISP to open another lane would have had no impact on smaller websites and blogs addressing Mr. Martin’s death. Under theproposed rule a content provider entering such an arrangement with an ISP would receive a faster lane for its traffic to travel on. The speeds at which other smaller providers are sending their data would not change.
Lastly, tying Trayvon Martin’s death to a discussion on net neutrality was inappropriate. There is no passion in the argument because the premise is false. It reeks of desperation. It would be one thing to argue, and justifiably so, that the lack of national media attention to the shooting was in part due to a lack of diversity in national media. If we owned more media outlets maybe the results would have been different. But to say that the lack of national media coverage would have been severely eroded by a policy that allows Netflix greater bandwidth to send videos is a stretch, a big stretch.
If we are to maintain credible and influential voices in any policy debate, our arguments should be rational and factual minus the desperate reach for the emotional.