ROME — At the heart of the ongoing debate surrounding “Net Neutrality” in the United States is a question regarding the very nature of the Internet. Has it become so crucial to humanity’s way of living to be considered a public utility, as essential as water or electricity — and, as Pope Francis put it, “a gift from God” — or is it a business like any other, to be ruled by the market logic of capitalism?
In reality the Internet is undoubtedly both, but different people, Catholics very much included, tend to emphasize different sides of that equation.
In all likelihood, on December 13 Federal Communications Commission members will vote in favor of deregulating the Internet, allowing broadband providers, such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to exercise further control over how they administer their services.
Unsurprisingly, Catholics in America present a divided front. While many have voiced their support for the measure, viewing it a victory for the free market, others, including the U.S. bishops, strongly oppose it, believing deregulation will change the face of the Internet, and not for the better.
The ABCs of Net Neutrality
Imagine the Internet as a milkshake, with everything we love and hate about the web inside — from blogs and news sites to viral ‘screaming goat’ videos. In this analogy, Internet service providers (ISPs) are the straw, allowing the consumer to access the content that he or she desires.
Net neutrality states that the straw must treat all content in the same way, and cannot, for example, change the download speed of one site over another or charge for preferential treatment.
In February 2015, the FCC approved a ‘New Open Internet Order’ setting the ground rules of net neutrality. The provision, under Title II of the Communications Act, reclassified ISPs as common carriers that serve the general public and therefore must be licensed by a regulatory body, meaning the FCC.
The ISPs’ hope to set up a normal-speed Internet at a base fee, and a high-speed Internet for a surcharge, was, for the time being, cast aside.
Less than two years after that decision, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has announced his intention to dismantle the regulations set under Title II, stirring panic and anger from those who foresee an Internet Doomsday, and ‘hurrahs’ from free market die-hards.
Obviously Verizon, Comcast and AT&T have much to gain from the abolition of Title II, and little interest in preserving the principles of net neutrality. Pai, a former Verizon employee, has argued that the rules set by the FCC have hindered infrastructure investment for ISPs and slowed the production and distribution of new services.
If the resolution passes, established companies like Netflix, Google and Amazon could become prey of ISP bullying and see the Internet speed on their sites reduced unless they agree to pay extra surcharges. Such fees would easily trickle down to consumers, who would end up footing the bill to access their favorite content.
While some analysts believe this risk to be minimal, the destruction of Title II would definitely turn it into a possibility.
In such a scenario, Internet kick-starters and startups would be the most affected. Additional fees placed by ISPs could handicap smaller businesses that are just entering the market and might not have the financial means to pay the premiums for high-speed Internet.
Also potentially disadvantaged could be the Internet sites and offerings of non-profit players, such as the Catholic Church and its various institutions, who also might not be able to foot the bill to be in the Internet’s new “fast lane.”
We need water, we need air, we need the Internet
In a statement this week the Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Communications, Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, addressed the FCC on behalf of the bishops’ conference in support of maintaining net neutrality.
“Strong net neutrality protections are critical to the faith community to function and connect with our members, essential to protect and enhance the ability of vulnerable communities to use advanced technology, and necessary for any organization that seeks to organize, advocate for justice or bear witness in the crowded and over-commercialized media environment,” his statement read.
In an interview with Crux, Coyne said that the conference has been engaging in this debate “since the very beginning,” and that during their latest committee meeting they have discussed the new political lay of the land with outnumbered members of the FCC who wish to preserve the 2015 net neutrality rules.
“Broadband providers, internet providers, are taking this decision on the grounds of making money,” Coyne said. “When the present administration says they are doing it, they are saying it to enable companies to leverage and make money. That isn’t necessarily something that is good for the consumer.”
The bishop stressed that the decision of the USCCB to side in favor of net neutrality is not politically driven, as many of the current tensions began under the Obama administration, but to protect the needs of the general public and ensure that Catholic media continues to have an online voice.
“If things go forward, you could have other religious groups who are well-financed being able to have access to high-speed internet, whereas smaller Catholic media doesn’t because they don’t have the resources, so the message doesn’t get out,” he said.
Coyne also questioned the argument by ISP spokespersons that they would not use their newfound freedom to stifle the competition but instead let the market decide which content they prefer, a pledge that has been reinforced in tweets and commercials.
“We’ve proven over and over again, that human nature being what it is, volunteerism doesn’t work when it comes to money and when it comes to human potential to make bad decisions based on selfishness rather that what is best for the general public,” he said.
“We are standing strong on this topic of net neutrality not only out of concern for going forward in our own communication work, but just because we think it’s going to serve the general common good,” Coyne added.
Helen Osman, president of the World Catholic Association for Communication (SIGNIS), echoed these words in an interview with Crux.
“I’m concerned with our Catholic institutions, but I am equally concerned for individuals who are attempting to use the internet in a way to improve their lives, that doesn’t mean just economically but also in having access to information, to being able to participate in their government, to being able to communicate with people,” she said.
Osman also stated that “it’s a very real possibility” that Catholic media organizations will be hindered by upcoming FCC decisions, and that individuals attempting to use Catholic sites will find themselves “stranded on the side of the Internet highway.”
The FCC Chairman’s decision to reverse the 2015 decision will benefit those who can pay, Osman added, and especially harm those who live in less populated areas where there are little to no options in terms of choosing ISPs, and would be disproportionately hindered in terms of Internet access and fees.
“As a Catholic communicator, I see communication as a fundamental attribute of what it means to be human,” she said. “If we as human beings are going to flourish, the primary communication tools we use have to essentially be accessible to everyone.”
Osman admits the challenges that ISPs, many of which are also cable companies, are experiencing. High quality online streaming services like Netflix are jeopardizing their business model by chipping away many of their clients with competitive rates. “But they have a larger responsibility toward society as a whole, because they are being very shortsided in thinking that a way to keep their profit margin up is by forcing people into a ‘Pay to Play’ model for the internet,” she said.
“The Internet now is similar to other public utilities in this country. You need water, you need clean air, you need access to electricity, you need access to the Internet. It’s a public commodity, it’s a public utility and it can’t be treated as if it were a luxury item.”
The case against net neutrality
If the FCC approves this new directive in December, consumers likely will not see an immediate or drastic change. Far more likely, things will look and seem to be exactly the same, at least for a little while. After all, previous to the 2015 FCC decision, the Internet had not only survived, but flourished without net neutrality guarantees.
In a Nov. 22 column, Jeffrey Tucker, founder of Liberty.me and research fellow at the Acton Institute, a Catholic organization promoting free-market solutions to social problems, called the 2015 FCC decision a “power grab,” which allowed established Internet companies to avoid paying for the costs that ISPs have to sustain in order to provide higher bandwidth.
“It created an Internet communication cartel not unlike the way the banking system works under the Federal Reserve,” Tucker wrote. “Net neutrality closed down market competition by generally putting government and its corporate backers in charge of deciding who can and cannot play in the market.”
Tucker points to this system as the root cause for the lack of infrastructure development by ISPs. They were allowed to act with no competition and chose to rest on their laurels.
“At long last, with the end of ‘net neutrality,’ competition could soon come to the industry that delivers Internet services to you,” he wrote.
Back in 2008 the founder of CatholicVote.org, Larry Cirignano, was among 12 conservatives who petitioned the House’s Judiciary Committee not to support net neutrality. Their concern was that the regulations would halt future innovations, including the blocks and filters that halt the rampant pornographic content available on the web.
“It is critically important for parents and broadband service providers to continue to have these tools available to them because despite what network neutrality proponents may say, all content on the web is not equal and should not be treated equally,” the letter read.
From the dissonant chorus that emerges not only within the Catholic community but also in U.S. society as a whole, it’s obvious that the debate over net neutrality is here to stay — and, equally, it’s also clear that whatever the FCC and Congress eventually decide to do, Catholics both outraged and delighted will still take to the web to talk about it.