What does the corporate enclosure of the Internet look like? It starts with grand words wrapped in timid acts. That's what FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski gave the American people as he punted on the important issues that need to be resolved. Internet users and startup entrepreneurs needed to be assured that their data-traffic would not be delayed or stifled just because AT&T, Comcast or Verizon might wish to do so.
Given the political clout that Internet service providers have within the Obama administration and Congress, the new rules will only hasten a further consolidation of power over Internet access and a new marketization of Internet content and traffic. It won't happen overnight, and it won't happen without new battles that might slow or limit this outcome. But the FCC's unwillingness to defend our interests -- in the face of telecom oligopolies with enormous political influence and legal resources -- is a clear sign of where things are headed. Downward.
The giant ISPs are not just gaining new opportunities to assert their market power; they are acquire new powers to stifle cultural and political speech. For the moment, the oligarchs insist that this is a moot issue, and that "net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem."
That's only halfway credible because the wireless device and app markets remain relatively fledgling and because the ISPs have not yet consolidated their power. They're also on their best behavior during this probationary period. No need to act belligerently at this delicate stage of the game, or show one's ace cards (loophole-ridden FCC legal language). The time for playing hardball will come later, when it's needed, as the fights for dominance over lucrative market sectors and technological franchises truly get underway.
The larger point is that the Internet as a commons suffered a huge blow. Instead of standing up for an open Internet and all the benefits of competition, democracy and culture that it provides, the FCC squandered its 3-2 Democratic majority and issued a pathetic set of ambiguous, we'll-decide-later rules that purport to safeguard net neutrality. It's baloney.
Internet users will now be as vulnerable as ever to the wiles of AT&T, Comcast and Verizon as they attempt to privatize the open Internet that has given us so much. The commoners may yet win future battles when one ISP tries to thwart competitors or when they give the big commercial websites preferential treatment over us ordinary folks. But why should we have to fight those battles, one after another? Isn't that why we have an FCC? (For an astute assessment of the FCC decision, see Harold Feld's blog post on the Public Knowledge website.)
President Obama campaigned on the issue of net neutrality and championed the virtues of an open Internet. Now we get another split-the-difference "victory" that we are supposed to be grateful for. It gives new meaning to the "audacity of hope" -- as in, "We should be audacious enough to hope that the FCC will do the right thing when the ISPs start flexing their muscles."
Sigh. As a prescient New Yorker cartoon put it right after the 2008 election, "Just think, a whole new generation can now learn to be disillusioned."