Dear FCC: Net Neutrality Is Part of a Social Contract

Annenberg Assistant Professor Victor Pickard discusses the net neutrality debate in the United States, stressing the importance of safeguarding an open internet. This post was originally published on the Huffington Post and can be found here.

With his ringing endorsement for strong net neutrality protections, President Obama has joined a public groundswell for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reclassify the Internet as a utility. This move would not only enable the agency to remain true to its mandate to regulate in the public interest, it would also, according to the President and many of the nearly 4 million Americans who filed comments with the FCC, promote democratic values of openness, fairness and freedom.

Such overwhelming public support for what may seem like a wonky regulatory debate reminds us that net neutrality is and always has been much more than a technocratic squabble over how Internet “pipes” are managed. It’s about the role of media and information in a democratic society, and the role of government — in this case the FCC — to help ensure access to information because, as we all learn in school, democracy requires an informed populace. Put simply, this is about a social contract between information providers, society and government.

This contract must include a clear regulatory role for the FCC. Since the market won’t automatically provide public goods like information, and since unregulated monopolies can threaten the health of our media system, government oversight is required. Without such authority, the FCC (which celebrated its 80th birthday this year) risks significant constraints and complications going forward. What will be the agency’s purpose for the next 80 years, or even the next five? How will the FCC defend the public interest in the digital age — an age of new digital monopolies? Weak net neutrality regulations risk not only irrelevance for the FCC, but also a loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the public in whose name it regulates.

We’ve been down this road before. In the 1930s and ’40s, commercial radio was roughly the same age as today’s commercial Internet. It was seen as a revolutionary…

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Interested in further exploring how the United States’ media system became what it is today? Check out Professor Pickard’s new book, America’s Battle for Media Democracy, which traces the American media system’s historical roots back to media policy battles in the 1940s. Click here for more information.


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