In Europe And America, New Internet Rules Up For Debate
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now from print media to the Web. We'd like to bring you up to date on two recent developments regarding the Internet. First, Europe's higher court ruled that people can request that outdated and erroneous information about them be removed from the Web. And here in the U.S., the FCC began debate over a new set of rules called net neutrality. Both developments have advocates and critics who both say that they're concerned that they could challenge the idea of an open and accessible Internet.
We wanted to try to understand these two important stories. So we've called Rey Junco. He's an associate professor at Purdue University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. And he visits with us from time to time to talk about technology. Welcome back, Rey. Thanks for joining us.
REY JUNCO: It's wonderful to be here, Michel. Thank you.
MARTIN: So let's start with that FCC discussion. Late last week the FCC voted to open a public debate for new rules that are said to guarantee an open Internet. But other people are saying that these rules, if implemented, would actually mean that content providers would be able to pay to guarantee faster service for them but then other people would get information more slowly. And I'm even confusing myself just trying to describe it. So can you help me here?
JUNCO: Yeah, I think it's really confusing, Michel, because of the direct statements coming from the FCC is that, you know, we don't want to use the 'fast lane' language. But in effect, it is a fast lane because Internet service providers, like your Comcast, can charge content providers - people like YouTube, Hulu, Amazon and Netflix - to have their traffic prioritized and delivered to you faster. And so those who don't pay for those guaranteed fast lanes wouldn't have as much priority. So the data would get to you slower.
MARTIN: Well, what problem are they trying to solve with these new rules?
JUNCO: I think the problem they're trying to solve is giving in to the cable lobby that wants to be able to charge more for these content providers that they feel are using more bandwidth, and they feel they should charge them more.
MARTIN: Can I ask you to kind of handicap how you think this debate is going to go? Is it still kind of very much in the air or does there seem to be kind of one direction or the other? 'Cause on the one hand, it was reported last month that Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC, said, quote, "we will not allow some companies to force Internet users into a slow lane so that others with special privileges can have superior service," end quote. He said that. But other people say, well, they don't believe that. What do you think?
JUNCO: Well, I agree with his statement. However, these proposed rules open it up for fast lanes. So in effect, it really would have the opposite effect of that statement. The plan is currently open for comment on the FCC's website. People can go to www.fcc.gov/comments and comment on it, or they can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with their comments.
MARTIN: Are there consumer groups that are paying attention to this, and have they coalesced around a particular point of view? Because you can see where, on the one hand, some people might say, well, what's wrong with paying more for faster services as long as everybody gets some service? Whereas, you can see other people saying, you know, that's just not fair since the airwaves are, you know, by definition, a public good.
You know, why should some people have favored access to them versus others? You know what I mean? It seems like there's arguments on either side, right?
JUNCO: Sure. Well, the open Internet has been a boon for minority voices to be heard, right? The fact that any blogger, reporter or startup media outlet can have as loud of a voice as the more established, well-funded companies, that's the very foundation of democracy.
You mentioned an interesting point there because in this FCC statement, they say that they are willing to reconsider classifying Internet providers as common carriers. They're - right now they're classified as information service. Making them common carriers would put them on par with other industries that serve the public good like transportation and communication so they couldn't discriminate. And so they would have to treat all traffic equally. And I think some of the messages I've seen by groups like the ACLU are really supportive of classifying the Internet service providers as common carriers. And I support that as well.
MARTIN: You were telling us that actually we pay more for inferior service here than other parts of the world. I'm not sure Americans know that. Tell us more about that.
JUNCO: That's right. In the U.S., we pay three times as much as in the U.K. and France and five times more than in South Korea. We also have some of the slowest broadband globally. And the reason we pay so much and have such poor service is because we don't have a choice. Most markets are dominated by one company.
For instance, I'm moving to a new community soon, and I was researching broadband service. There were two providers. I could either go with a service that would really struggle to stream online video or pay twice as much to get appropriate broadband. So guess what my option is? I paid double to get appropriate broadband. So in effect, it's a monopoly.
MARTIN: All right. Well, let's get to one other topic very briefly. This is regarding Europe's highest court ruling. It requires search engines like Google to allow online users to be, quote, "forgotten," unquote, after a period of time by removing links to webpages. And, you know, obviously, the people who are advancing this say that they should have a right to - particularly when something is wrong or when it's outdated or like, say - you shouldn't have to live with that information forever.
But others are saying this could undermine the essence of the Internet, that it'll interfere with the free exchange of information. I think, obviously, this is European Court. Privacy rules are somewhat different than they are in the United States. But can - I'd like to get your take on this.
JUNCO: Gosh, Michel, this is a mess. I'm a big supporter of the right to be forgotten, especially if we can implement something that's narrowly focused on minors, as has been done in the U.S. So for instance, California passed a law that beginning January 2015, minors have the right to ask to remove any information they post online.
The European court ruling, however, is completely different than this kind of legislation. It sets up this user-initiated takedown system that puts Google in the powerful position of being the arbiter of what's in the public's best interest to keep online versus the privacy interest of the individual who is making the request. That's a pretty powerful place for them to be in and a bit scary.
MARTIN: Is there any immediate relevance for American consumers?
JUNCO: I'm not sure about that right now. I mean, it is a European decision. My understanding is that it cannot be appealed. So I think we're going to have to see how this plays out.
MARTIN: Rey Junco is an associate professor at Purdue University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. He was with us from member station WBAA, which is on the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Rey Junco, thanks so much for joining us once again.
JUNCO: Thanks so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.