Sunday, August 22, 2010


A Threat to New Journalism

By Reginald Johnson
August 22, 2010

Hopes for building a new, vibrant form of on-line journalism could be dealt a serious blow if big communications companies like Google and Verizon have their way.

The two firms recently agreed to a “policy framework” for how they think the Internet should be run. The changes they propose will pretty much end the current free state of the Web, where any person, non-profit or company can post anything they want, do so without interference, and without incurring more costs over and above what they pay their Internet Service Provider for basic service.

Today, everyone who posts on the Internet --- whether you’re CNN or Joe Smith the blogger in small-town USA --- gets treated equally. For the most part, there’s no weeding or filtering out of content.

This is known as net neutrality.

Under the Verizon-Google deal, net neutrality goes out the window.

With wireless connections to the Internet, such as over a cell phone, the companies want to reserve the right to prevent certain kinds of the content from being posted and block access to websites. It’s expected that in the coming years, more and more people will be accessing the Internet on a wireless application, so this potential censorship is very significant.

Also, the two firms want to set up a two-tiered system for Internet users --- one a fast “private” lane and the other a slow “public” lane. To be in the fast lane, where will be rapid connections on the best broadband, a blogger or producer of an audio or video show would have to pay an extra charge. It’ll be like paying more to your cable TV company to get premium channels. Everyone else will be on the public Internet, which over the years will become much slower than the private Internet, since the companies will invest all their development/infrastructure money in the more lucrative private side.

Should this deal get finalized, it will undermine the growth of the new journalism that has been mushrooming on the Web in recent years.

In the past 15 years, hundreds, if not thousands of websites have sprung up, offering free-wheeling commentary and in some cases original reporting about communities all across the United States. While some of the blogging falls short good, professional writing that you’ll find in newspapers and magazines, a good number of the sites are well-done and offer journalism that does a better job than the traditional publications.

As newspapers decline due to years of bad management, the recession and other factors, it was hoped that this new on-line journalism --- aided perhaps by foundation or government funding --- could really take off and fill the void left by papers.

But if the Google-Verizon deal becomes the framework for how much of the Web operates, then the growth of on-line journalism would be stunted. For one, the presence of a content block would be devastating for new websites trying to make their mark. Supposing reporters at some website had just put together a hard-hitting piece with new evidence of torture by U.S. authorities in military prisons. Will a censor at Verizon say, “this is a little too controversial,” and refuse to put it up? That kind of thing could well happen. It would have a chilling effect on all Internet writers.

And start-up news operations will certainly be hurt if a two-tiered, pay-to-play Internet emerges. They’ll be at a competitive disadvantage with the bigger, corporate news sites if they can’t pay to be on the private, fast lane. Given that many on-line news publications and news shows run on shoe-string budgets already, many small operations won’t get on the fast lane, and will see their written and audio reports relegated to the slower, public lane.

This ugly scenario on the Internet may not come about if the Federal Communications would step up and do their job. The Google-Verizon deal is not set in stone yet, and the FCC could move to prevent it from becoming reality, by taking on new regulatory power. That would mean going through a process called “reclassification” whereby the FCC would reclassify the Internet and put it in the same category as TV or radio and subject to the same kind of oversight regulations.

With that kind of authority, the FCC could tell Google and Verizon their plan will not work, it’s not in the public interest and the Internet has to stay open.

The FCC has been dithering on this issue, and time is wasting. Industry lobbyists are hard at work to have their concept of a privatized, pay-to-play Internet go through. They’re bending the ear of the FCC and Congress to get their way.

Fortunately, ever since the Google-Verizon plan was announced, there’s been an uproar from the public, and people have been pressuring the FCC to do the right thing. There’s also been protests outside Google headquarters, with people imporing the company to live up to its original motto, which is “Don’t be Evil.”

Let yourself be heard. Call or write the FCC and members of Congress, demanding that they not allow the Internet to be corporatized.

Go to the website, and sign a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, urging him to reject the Google-Verizon deal, set up regulatory control of the Internet, and insure net neutrality.

Only massive public pressure will force the government to do the right thing and keep the Internet open.

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