Al Franken at Free Press Panel: The Internet Is the First Amendment Issue of Our Time

FCC, Net Neutrality, Senate, The Innovation Economy July 9th, 2014

, Reporter, Broadband Breakfast News

WASHINGTON, July 9, 2014 – The internet is the First Amendment issue of our time, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn, said at a Tuesday panel discussion hosted by the non-profit advocacy group Free Press. He chastised opponents of net neutrality for not understanding that without it, “deep-pocketed corporations can pay to get their content to you faster,” and choose winners and losers.

“I’ve heard from …speeches from members of the House of Representatives that said, ‘look at all the innovation we have had on the internet, all the billions and billions of dollars and investment we’ve had before net neutrality.’“ But Franken said this view of the internet’s recent history was mistaken.

Innovation and investment on the free and open internet didn’t just happen “while” net neutrality existed, but “because” net neutrality happened.

The panel discussion following Franken’s departure was dominated by Stanford law professor Barbara van Schewick, who criticized Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler for being “scared” that Congress will balk if he does “the right thing” by reclassifying telecommunications under the Title II public utility regulation. She was joined by actress Ruth Livier and Althea Erickson, policy director of the online marketplace Etsy.

Van Schewick added that the internet should be “application agnostic” instead of neutral, meaning that end users over the last mile should be able to pay higher fees for using more bandwidth, but internet service providers shouldn’t have the right to discriminate based on the nature of applications, whether it be a text-based service or video service.

“[We] have to have a regime that gives the FCC discretion to inject itself into competitive market for applications and content,” van Schewick said. Title II would solve this problem, she added, provided that the FCC apply forbearance and eliminate parts of the law that “make no sense.”

Without net neutrality, startup companies face “an existential threat,” van Schewick said. Venture capitalists “only invest millions of dollars into applications that users actually want” because there is a “98 percent chance of failure.” That’s why there are so few music startups, she said.

“So if you thought that maybe we can cushion the blow to startup innovation by letting the venture capitalists step in, you can totally forget about that.”

Instead, she said the internet is an “environment that’s totally screwed against” low cost innovators and startups, thanks to broadband companies that force people to pay higher fees for faster access. This leaves zero certainty for investors, she said. Title II would benefit small companies and turn the tide on ISPs. Regulation wouldn’t cut into ISP’s “current profits” but only their “potential profits.”

Livier, a Mexican-American actress best known for starring on the Showtime TV series “Resurrection Boulevard,” called net neutrality the “internet’s bill of rights.” She said her own Latino-centered web series, Ylse, “would have been impossible without net neutrality. It would have been impossible without that ability to prove that there’s a market for [Latino] content.”

Erickson said Wheeler shouldn’t just sing praises of the open internet, but move to ban “fast lanes” and paid prioritization.

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