In a week of political showdowns, it seems appropriate to reflect on the faceoff in the Internet advocacy world. On the morning of June 10, 1964, Senator Robert C. Byrd ended a 14 hour, 13 minute address. The arguments over the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had given Americans the example of the modern filibuster. Meaningful national policy is hardly made with ease, nor without due acrimony. In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed the forward-leaning Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1996, legalizing millions of immigrants in the process — after the Act had failed in conference committee just the year before, in 1985. We fight over the big issues. A truth emerges. Compromise follows the big arguments. Internet policy worked this way once upon a time.
In 1996, Congress codified principles for the then-nascient Internet in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, codifying several important ideas, including its recognition that after six decades, the Internet could not be regulated by the principles of the Telecommunications Act of 1934, which was intended for a national monopoly telephone service; that universal service would be an evolving concept, and that the evolution of the new Internet would take immense private capital to spread from coast to coast, and continue its evolution through innovation and investment. Today’s conversation about the Internet and how to regulate it has new challenges, a mighty helping of acrimony, and a new kind of populist zeal separating advocates and scholars in a way that only the 140 -character social media world can bring to life.
The modern Internet has challenges. But the most important ones aren’t at the center of the national conversation. Two decades into the Internet experiment, the infrastructure of today has sprouted through a trillion dollars in private capital. We’ve spread wire line and wireless Internet to meet exploding demand from coast to coast. Fiber experiments in the heartland have changed the conversation about fast and super-fast Internet even further.
Rural broadband remains a challenge in the most hard to connect areas. (That’s called our 5 percent problem). But Internet infrastructure is not the big challenge of the day.
The Internet’s most troubling problems have little to do with speed or availability. Its that 15 percent of Americans remain disconnected by choice. There is a 10 percent gap in Internet use by race. Only 2-3 percent of silicon valley tech jobs at companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are inhabited by African Americans and Latinos.
Internet wealth is also too concentrated in a few urban places. Those least likely to be American Internet users tend to be poor, and less educated rural and urban dwellers. The non-users also tend to be older, and black or Latino. Rust belt cities and rural towns are behind in incubating digital startups to participate in the creation of new jobs where they are most needed. Inner cities are playing catch up, yet again.
The most troubling issue facing the Internet is the dire stratification of digital wealth — we billions of users and sharers, feeding a millionaire and billionaire economy of a concentrated, too homogenous group of entrepreneurs. It’s the new reality of the Uber and Airbnb economy — firms valued at more than $10 billion each, but small on jobs, while delivering record shareholder value, with little need for the kind of capital investments, nor number of employees of the businesses of yesteryear.
This stratification is the issue of the Internet age. And it can be fixed.
Closing the new digital divide — not just creating a new generation of Internet users, but inspiring diverse generations of makers and entrepreneurs, creating and innovating in dispersed SILICON EVERYWHERE communities from California, through the heartland, and to the east and south — will determine whether the digital economy harkens a new feudalism, or lives up to its potential as the democratizer of capital and opportunity.
But today’s arguments about the Internet don’t seem to focus on this issue. What advocates have been caught up in, is the question of regulation of the relationships between the largest of Internet businesses. Should Netflix be allowed to negotiate for a direct connection to a network? Should a network be allowed to partner with a novel health care startup to create a super-fast telehealth offering? These questions have inspired exhausting digital reams of argument, advocacy, and more curse words than ever filed in official FCC documents.
But what about our 15 percent problem? What about the digital divide? What about digital equity? And what will any new rules from the FCC mean for them? These issues seem too far away from the debate, and too unimportant to some advocates.
Acrimony and argument is expected in Washington. It is part of the process. But as the FCC looks to the future of Internet regulation, and Congress may be again pushed into the spotlight to update an Act that seems to have outlived its effectiveness, what will separate the voices on this matter will be the attention paid to the following:
What policies, have, and will actually help to address our real Internet problem, grow an innovative Internet for the future, and advance the goal of digital equity?
Jason Llorenz is an attorney and professor. He teaches at the Rutgers University School of Communication & Information. Follow on twitter: @llorenzesq
Follow Jason A. Llorenz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@llorenzesq