This is the fifth of a six-part series on public policy and the trouble the U.S. government has with balancing its role in providing access, on the one hand, and policing content on the other. This part focuses on the larger struggles inherent in the current battle on net neutrality. The first four parts of this series are available here, here, here, and here.
The debate of market rhetoric aside, the emphasis on net neutrality is the most blatant example of a push for continued government involvement as a moderator to ensure equality online. The question seems to be whether the government's major role should be one of content regulation or access regulation. In this case, the overall benefit of issues like net neutrality and bridging the digital divide seems to be that these initiatives provide insurance for a free marketplace for content providers and users with greater accessibility, at the exclusion of the private interests of service providers and finding new initiatives to provide services to a wide diversity of income levels and locations. In both instances, then, the initiatives are to increase the number of speakers, and listeners, in mass communication.
This net neutrality debate is essentially about what makes a fair business environment and how companies should be compensated to providing services to content providers and to citizens. The cost of infrastructure is indeed an issue, and bridging the digital divide means that companies must continue to expand Internet access to rural areas where people do not have broadband access; however, to generate funds for increased infrastructure by damaging the equality of the online marketplace could be too high of a price to pay and a mistake that could have grave consequences on media policy. As Lawrence Lessig writes in Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity, "Thus, while it is understandable for industries threatened with new technologies that change the way to do business to look to the government for protection, it is the special duty of policy makers to guarantee that protection not become a deterrent to progress." While governmental control of content and access, under the guise of public morals or child safety, can impede progress, so can letting narrow interests control the marketplace.
Former FCC Chair William E. Kennard pointed out in an October 2006 opinion piece in The New York Times that initiatives to branch the digital divide were being covered up by questions of net neutrality, which he saw as a battle between the "extremely rich" and the "very rich" content and service providers. While Kennard's points about major distractions to the important issue of increasing access are valid, the notion that net neutrality has no impact on users are quite off base, as customers actually have a substantial stake in the net neutrality argument.