NYC Web World Regroups After FCC Defeat

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The weakening of the Federal Communications Commission by a court ruling issued Tuesday has riled New York City organizations focused on fostering the availability, affordability and free speech rights of the Internet.

The ruling bars the commission from regulating certain kinds of web traffic, saying it lacks the statutory authority.

In response, organizations based in New York are adopting new organizing strategies and tactics to help the FCC grow new teeth. And a pro-FCC resolution that the New York City Council has been considering adopting since 2007 is being revived.

The Tuesday ruling means Internet and mobile service providers will be able to censor information they don’t want subscribers to see and slow down information they believe uses too much bandwidth. They could also force website operators who want faster service to pay more for it. Such a change could dramatically increase the costs of operating the city’s independent media outlets, which until now, have relied on the Internet’s low startup and operational costs to remain afloat.

“The Internet is the first opportunity to do the kind of work we do,” says Kristofer Rios, policy program associate withPeople’s Production House, a non-profit that trains New York youth and community based reporters to do radio journalism. “It’s a setback. Now, in addition to paying for the Internet service, they may have to pay for every post they put up, for every email you send out.”

The Tuesday ruling could also mean the FCC doesn’t have the authority to implement its ambitious National Broadband Plan, which aims to bridge the digital divide. Without broad powers to regulate broadband, agency officials say they aren’t sure they can accelerate broadband access and adoption in rural America and connect low-income Americans, Native American communities, and Americans with disabilities.

Households without Internet access will find it increasingly hard to participate in the economy. About half of all New York households had no Internet access at home in 2007, according to City Council-sponsored research.

Dana Spiegel, executive director of NYCwireless, a non-profit that that advocates and enables the growth of free, public wireless Internet access in New York City and surrounding areas, says the cost of Internet service blocks access for low-income people. “$50 bucks a month for Internet service, plus tariffs and all that is expensive. It’s about $2 per day. That’s a meal,” Spiegel says.” If you have a choice between eating and having Internet access, you’d choose to eat and rightfully so.”

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Comcast and other large Internet providers don’t currently restrict web content and have no plans to do so. Local advocates scoffed at the claim. “What’s to stop them from doing it?” Rios asks.

Spiegel agrees. “The incentive for them to do such a thing? There are millions of them,” he says. “Their incentives not to do it are very few.”

The ruling, issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, came after Comcast sued the FCC, asserting its right to slow down consumer access to BitTorrent, a file sharing service. Comcast stopped the practice. But the court said the FCC didn’t have the authority to force it to do so or, generally, to regulate Comcast’s network management.

Congress could create a law to give the agency such authority. The FCC could also obtain that authority by reclassifying broadband service into the same category as telephones. Both measures would likely be opposed by the industry, but national-level advocates are gearing up to help the agency enact the latter.

“Right now, we are in a concerted push to try to give the FCC the popular support they would need to reclassify,” says Timothy Karr, the New Jersey-based campaign director for Free Press, the nation’s largest media reform organization. “Our campaign is now focused on giving them the political backing, the public support they need.”

In New York City, Councilwoman Gale Brewer is preparing to revise and resubmit to the Council the resolution she first proposed in 2007 explicitly supporting the FCC’s efforts to codify its regulation of the Internet.

“We care about the tech sector,” says Kunal Malhotra, Brewer’s Director of Legislation and Budget for. “It’s a small business issue. If you’re a web developer and you’re putting out a small app and you’re competing with one of the big players, why would they create a level playing field for you?”

Malhotra sees this week’s ruling as a crossroads, not a dead end.

“I don’t think we view the court case as a death knell to the movement,” Malhotra says.

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