06 February 2011

Net neutrality and the Fairness Doctrine

While I came to this comparison independently, a quick search of Google finds that many others have come to similar conclusions.  I say similar conclusions, and not the same conclusions, because I don't consider net neutrality to be the Internet version of the Fairness Doctrine.  Rather, I think the concepts are similar and worth exploring.  Let's take a quick review before we get to the conceptual similarities.  From Wikipedia:
The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, that required the holders of broadcast licenses to both present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was, in the Commission's view, honest, equitable and balanced. The 1949 Commission Report served as the foundation for the Fairness Doctrine since it had previously established two more forms of regulation onto broadcasters. These two duties were to provide adequate coverage to public issues and that coverage must be fair in reflecting opposing views.
The Fairness Doctrine was subject to longstanding criticism, and was eventually repealed in the 1980s; yet attempts to legislate the doctrine have been introduced on numerous occasions since then.

And now, net neutrality:
Network neutrality is a principle proposed for users' access to networks participating in the Internet. The principle advocates no restrictions by Internet service providers and governments on content, sites, platforms, the kinds of equipment that may be attached, and the modes of communication...In the US particularly, but elsewhere as well, the possibility of regulations designed to mandate the neutrality of the Internet has been subject to fierce debate.
Before we go any further, let's acknowledge upfront that both the Fairness Doctrine and net neutrality are complex and controversial issues, and that it is impossible to properly define them in the space of a paragraph (despite the fact that it's precisely what I have tried to do!).  However, as a matter of concept, purpose, and intent, I think we can fairly characterize each:
  • The Fairness Doctrine was government regulation, via the FCC, over radio to mandate a level of balance and/or equality in content.  
  • Net neutrality is government regulation, via the FCC, over the Internet to mandate neutral treatment over content.
Both are government regulations written by, and enforced by the FCC.  In both cases, the policies were written and implemented by the FCC, not Congress. Both control mediums where the expression of free speech is central.  Both place the government (in the form of the FCC) as the arbiter of such speech by its view of what is equal or neutral.

Now, the differences: the radio spectrum is limited in nature, the Internet very much less so.  The Fairness Doctrine was about equality in content, about ensuring fairness in opposing views.  In other words, if you air a segment that is pro-life in nature, you should air something similar that is pro-choice.  As a policy, the Fairness Doctrine required the broadcasters to be an active participant in airing opposing views.  Net neutrality, on the other hand, is about ensuring that content is not treated differently.  Conceptually, net neutrality does not impose restrictions on types of content, or requirements that certain content must be presented in a fair or equitable manner.  As a policy, net neutrality requires ISPs to step back and refrain from participating in content discrimination.

Unfortunately, the comparison of these issues has been poisoned by both sides of the political spectrum.  U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) said, "Net neutrality, as I see it, is the fairness doctrine for the Internet."  Rush Limbaugh said, "[t]he easiest way to understand [net neutrality] is to think of a Fairness Doctrine for the Internet."  And then of course, whatever Rush Limbaugh says becomes a sound bite his opponents.  Those opponents have adopted Doomsday scenarios, that the failure to pass net neutrality would be (and I use their quote): "the end of the Internet as we know it."  

The truth, of course, is probably somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.  My concern is that from my perspective, the weight of the similarities is heavier than the weight of the differences.  One branch of the government is using its regulatory powers to enforce its own notion of equality, neutrality or fairness.  Neither scheme was specifically authorized by legislation (although, in the case of the Fairness Doctrine, there was little doubt that the FCC had the authority; on the other hand, serious questions exist regarding the FCC's authority or lack thereof, to regulate the Internet).  I have argued that the process by which net neutrality is being enacted, is as important (or perhaps even more so) as whether or not it is enacted.  In the same vein, I have made the point that some of the supposed net neutrality violations are not really the case.

It seems to me that the nature of our short attention spans indicates that sound bite comparisons to the Fairness Doctrine are probably not fair (no pun intended) without explaining that there are legitimate differences between the two policies.  Nevertheless, these issues are not going away, and will only grow in importance.  News abroad in Egypt has revived the domestic "Internet kill switch" which will only serve to ripen the debate of these critical issues.
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