Photo by Steve Rhode, via Flickr.
Internet service providers, like Verizon and Comcast, can give preference to some content owners over others or block them, a federal appeals court ruled this morning.
Quite simply, this means Internet service providers can pick and choose the content consumers see and how they see it. The ruling, Verizon v. Federal Communications Commission, is a setback to what is more commonly called, “net neutrality,” the principal that Internet service providers should enable equal access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.
The court states that the Federal Communications Act does not allow the FCC to force internet service providers to make their networks open to all.
Why should journalists and journalism organizations care? For independent or small-scale content owners, this ruling means it will be that much harder to reach the consumers they’re targeting. For news organizations, already strapped for cash, this means either now having to pay to play on the information super highway in order to reach consumers, or worse, having your content blocked because the Internet service provider favors another company over yours.
“This ruling means there is no one who can protect us from ISPs that block or discriminate against websites, applications or services,” according to media advocacy organization Free Press in an email blast about the ruling. Free Press has been warning of the threat for more than a year.
The court did allow that Internet service providers will have to disclose their practices to users. During the holidays, Republican members of Congress announced plans to update the federal communications law by offering a more modern one that takes into account the changing media landscape, they said.
Congress first passed the Communications Act of 1934, which created the FCC to encourage and regulate electronic communication in the United States; the law was revised in 1996. Signed by then-President Bill Clinton, the initial purpose of the current law was to deregulate the converging broadcast and telecommunications industries.
Under a more modern communications law, Congress could give the FCC power to make and enforce rules that would require telecom companies to keep their networks open. Or Congress can bend to the will of the telecom lobby and allow the court’s ruling to usher in a new era of unequal access to the internet. Public hearings on this matter promise to be top news in months to come.
UPDATE: This afternoon Comcast released a statement that the cable provider would continue to play by open internet rules, at least through 2018, per an agreement it made with the government when it merged with NBCUniversal.
Note: This story is developing; it will update once I read the ruling further.
Tracie Powell is co-chair of the NABJ Digital Journalism Task Force. She writes about the media and media policy issues.