It’s been more than six decades since the release of The Bias of Communication by economist Harold Innis, which Amazon describes as, “One of the most influential books ever published in Canada.” Unless you are a student of communication, you may not be aware of his work, but much of what Marshall McLuhan popularized in the 1960s was based on or influenced by the ideas of Innis. And his concepts are just as relevant, if not more so, today.
Literacy in past eras: a powerful tool for the privileged
Essentially a collection of essays on the history and power of human communication, one of its core concepts is the influence that the centralization and decentralization of communication channels has had on society and the building of empires. He points out that before the invention of moveable type all written communication was centralized with those who could read and write: the clergy and the nobility. This was a powerful tool that allowed a small, privileged element of society to control contracts, law, scripture and the dissemination of information. Printing and the spread of literacy broke that monopoly, decentralized the dissemination of information, ideas and knowledge, and ultimately led to the breakdown of monarchies and the Christian Reformation.
… and then broadcast media were born
Zip ahead to the 20th century and we find a recentralizing force in the influence of radio and television. The dominant communication media were again being controlled, albeit more benignly, by a relatively small segment of society: broadcasting companies, advertisers and, to a lesser extent, the government. Electronic communication became a powerful tool for creating iconic, monolithic brands, influencing public opinion, and instituting social change. Now, in the 21st century, we are witnessing the effects of a decentralizing technology even stronger than print: the Internet. It is profoundly changing the way we communicate, relate to one another, purchase goods, and consume information. Unfortunately, its inherent, liberating virtues are being challenged.
Internet neutrality under siege
History lesson over; let’s move on to current events. We pretty much all accept the Internet as a free and open venue for exchanging information. That’s “free” in the sense of “unrestricted”, of course; one way or another, access via an Internet Service Provider is being paid for by someone. Freedom of content has its drawbacks, but so long as we are aware that information on the Internet may not be vetted or necessarily true, we can view whatever we want without restriction. We can also create online content and share it on an equal footing with anyone, be it P&G, Exxon, the government, or anyone else.
Whoever your friendly neighborhood ISP may be, they aren’t particularly happy with this state of affairs. The FCC’s Net Neutrality Law requires ISPs to treat all content equally, and this essentially prevents them from selling preferential treatment to the highest bidder. It isn’t enough that they charge you a monthly fee for Internet service: they want to be able to profit from selectively controlling your access to information, websites and applications. This isn’t speculation on my part; the future of the Internet is currently being argued in the District of Columbia federal circuit court under Verizon v. FCC, No. 11-1355. That’s one step below the Supreme Court. If Verizon ultimately wins, it means that ISPs will have the ability to charge companies for having an Internet presence on their system, offer preferential service to premium-paying customers (e.g., faster download speeds), or even block content that they don’t like.
First Amendment Rights?
Ironically, Verizon is basing its case partially on the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. I hope that one didn’t give you mental whiplash, but they’re essentially saying that by forcing them to carry all net traffic equally takes away their right to self-expression. In a sense, they are attempting to take on the mantle shared by publishers or broadcasters who have the right to choose what they carry as content and edit information as they please. They would also have tremendous leverage for exerting influence on the various social media platforms.
ISP: Intrinsically Subversive Profiteers?
There is a difference between “can” and “will”, of course, and Verizon’s stance is that they are challenging the FCC’s authority to regulate the Internet, suggesting that net neutrality is the first step on a “slippery slope” that will lead to further regulatory control. I, for one, find it difficult to believe that Verizon and the other ISPs will long be able to resist the prospect of enormous revenue potential by turning the information highway into a toll road. The only offsetting force would be the threat of competition. If I were a cable company CMO, the day that Verizon won its case I’d be running ads questioning the neutrality of FIOS and promising that my service would always remain free from interference; that we would continue to fight for truth, justice and the American way (feel free to wave a flag at this point).
Back to the dark ages…
Getting back Harold Innis, having a handful of ISPs control and modulate what we are allowed see and hear is a nightmarish scenario worthy of the Middle Ages. The basic lesson of Innis’ writings is that the ways in which we communicate, and the question of who controls the channels of communication, affects every aspect of society, culture, and commerce (he was an economist, remember). We have already witnessed the immense transformative power of the Internet. It is changing the ways in which we learn, socialize, access news and entertainment, and purchase goods. As I’ve written before, the Internet can no longer be considered a tool for communication; it is quite literally an integral and very important component of our social and economic infrastructure.
When is communication more than communication?
Nothing is determined until the courts rule, probably months from now. Those following the case, however, feel that the judges are viewing the case put forward by the FCC as be weak. I have to question whether or not the FCC is the proper federal agency to be defending net neutrality. The Internet is a channel for commerce, and selectively favoring one competitor over another in terms of customer access certainly has the acrid odor of restraint of trade–at the very least. Imagine the lawsuits if Cablevision or Comcast blocked all FIOS television commercials from their system, or FIOS did the same to mobile service providers other than Verizon.
Let me offer this. The Internet is not radio or television; it is far more than a medium of communication. Perhaps it should be the FTC that steps in to ensure that the Internet remains a neutral, even playing field for business and industry. These are also the people who can decide whether the hardwired cable systems constitute a monopoly or a cartel, and unfairly restrict consumer options. Be careful what you wish for, Verizon. It might just come true.
Co-founding partner, Executive Creative Director and senior copywriter at SMM Advertising.