Will Court Gutting of Net Neutrality Change Newspaper Industry’s Position?

By: Mark Fitzgerald

For going on three years at least, the newspaper industry’s biggest organization — and voice in Washington — has stayed, well, neutral on the issue of net neutrality. On Tuesday evening, as it has since 2007, the Newspaper Association of America’s Web site entry reflected an official position on net neutrality that NAA had no official position.

“At this time, NAA has not taken an official position on net neutrality believing that the FCC’s (Federal Communications Commission) broadband principles are sufficient in preventing discrimination,” the entry says in part.

But Tuesday it became clear that the FCC may not have sufficient powers to prevent the smashing of the principle of net neutrality.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FCC does not have the authority to tell broadband providers they must treat all Internet traffic equally.

The appeals panel ruled in one of the most egregious cases. It’s hard to feel sorry for Comcast, the nation’s biggest cable operator and the outfit I’m paying to write this. But the users of BitTorrent, the online file-sharing service that loves to move huge files, were not often good neighbors as they slowed traffic around them uploading “Who’s Your Caddy?” and “Transformers.”

As S. Derek Turner, research director of the media activist group Free Press, pointed out Tuesday, the decision suggests the FCC has no power to stop broadband providers from blocking Web sites, certainly a corporate Orwellian outcome from a court of U.S. law.

But really, the reason Comcast and other broadband providers are fighting net neutrality isn’t so much to corral the gigabyte hogs as it is to win the ability to offer premium service — faster speeds, head-of-the-line connections, greater visibility — for premium prices. (For now we’ll let alone the issue of why it is the broadband offered by U.S. providers is slower than much of the rest of the developed world, except to say the BitTorrents of the world are a problem created in part by that second-rate service.)

The appellate decision also complicates, if not cripples, the FCC’s own terribly modest plan to spread broadband.

Free Press, as you might expect, lays these problems at past FCC attempts to “completely deregulate America’s communications networks.’

For the most part, NAA and the newspaper industry in general cheered that public policy. Newspapers were burned by the misguided “cross-ownership” ban on same-market ownership of dailies and broadcast, and pushed deregulation as a part of doing away with that 1975 regulation.

NAA is a group that complains loudly — and correctly — about the U.S. Postal Service’s continual attempts to favor direct mailers over newspapers in delivery pricing and service should just as aggressively defend net neutrality.

So will the wrecking ball that’s been hurled against net neutrality convince NAA and other newspaper interests to defend equal access to the Internet for sound democratic and business reasons?

That’s unclear. Monday evening, a spokesman said NAA had no comment on the court decision.

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