Annenberg Center’s Net Neutral Principles: Not Enough to Protect our Digital Future in U.S.

The folks at USC’s Annenberg Center have crafted some “principles” on network neutrality. We have to say at the outset we always have strong reservations about positions taken by academic institutions that take huge amounts of media and communications industry cash. Places like Annenberg/USC and UCLA are also always loath to really take on their Los Angeles show-biz industry neighbors. Perhaps that’s why their “principles” don’t really adequately protect the Internet’s future. We also wonder how they developed such proposals, as their website doesn’t reveal who made up the “group of senior communications experts” who met to hash them out in February. We do see that one of the people at Annenberg crafting the principles is Simon Wilkie, who has been helping the folks at the Progress and Freedom Foundation turn over our media system to their communications monopolist supporters.
The good news is that Annenberg did come out in support of a “basic access” broadband lane for the public. But at 1.25 Mb/s, it’s insufficient to offer the public meaningful access to the emerging world of digital communications. We also believe that their suggestion that the public lane be re-evaluated every four years is inadequate. It’s likely whatever is originally recommended will become frozen in time, especially as the Bells and cable industry work their political magic in D.C. The public deserves an open lane where full-motion video and other multi-media content can be readily received—that would be at least 3Mb/s. Any principle should call for regular, annual broadband speed “check-ups.” This way the public lane doesn’t become a one-way street.

Annenberg’s principles also failed to make clear that the public lane has to have instant access into TV’s (IPTV) and mobile devices. Our digital media monopolists will use their last mile clout to transform these platforms into privatized playgrounds. We have to make sure that all service providers make it simple for users to get the digital content of their choice, and not use their control over portals and interfaces to discriminate. Annenberg would permit cable and phone companies to do whatever they pleased beyond the public lane, including “free to determine all service parameters, including performance, pricing, and the prioritization of 3rd party traffic.” As the Wizard of Oz said to Dorothy and Co., “Not so fast.” Yet to be determined is a range of content essential for the lifeblood of our Republic–and that should be free from any gatekeeper. That might be electoral content, public safety information, news/journalistic services, educational programming, and beyond. We don’t want to force such material only onto the public lane. The future of the broadband Internet requires an intensive public debate, including exposing the plans of the telephone/cable/ and other media giants to turn the digital medium into a data-collecting, ad-intensive, tollbooth. Annenberg’s principles simply won’t get us there. I think—as they say in LA—they should be sent back to the writer’s room.

PS: We do think highly of Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center—funded by the long-time show-biz industry legend. Prof. Marty Kaplan has done good work there. Unfortunately, academic efforts such as Kaplan’s are all too rare as universities seek large sums of cash from communications companies.

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

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