FCC-backed free internet promises certain conflict with porn industry, ISPs

December 1, 2008

FCC-backed free internet promises certain conflict with porn industry, ISPsFederal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin is backing a proposal to deliver free Internet service to all Americans on a segment of airwave frequencies to be auctioned off in the near future. The only catch is that participants will be restricted from accessing pornographic or content deemed inappropriate for children … and your internet could quite possibly be slower than your grandmother’s old-school dialup connection.

The FCC has been, for all intents and purposes, sitting at the negotiating table with wireless carriers and Internet providers for some time deciding what is to be done with the soon-to-be auctioned airwaves. One suggestion that has received a mostly popular reception from consumers and protests from service provider and carriers is to auction off bandwidth for the purpose of delivering free internet to all Americans.

Under the plan proposed by Martin, the winning bidder will use 25 percent of the acquired airwaves to provide free wireless internet to everyone, according to the Wall Street Journal. The winning bidder would then be permitted to offer a “high-speed” service for a monthly fee, thereby encouraging those who relish faster speeds to fund their own bandwidth as well as the bandwidth of those taking advantage of the free service.

The plan closely resembles one proposed by M2Z networks in October. Under M2Z’s proposal, all participants who choose to partake in its service would be required to purchase a wireless data card ranging in price from $50 to $150. At that point, participants could use free wireless clocked at speeds around 700mhz, which is slower than even the mediocre speeds of most telephone DSL services, but faster than dialup. Participants requiring more bandwidth could pay a fairly standard price ranging between $25 and $35 dollars for 3 megabit speed.

M2Z’s proposal is based on an advertising model that would sell participants’ zip codes to search engines to provide regionally-targeted marketing. Uninterested search engines would not need to participate; the idea would be to get the giant engines like Google to front the costs of providing free internet to the masses in exchange for gaining area-specific advertisement information.

Saul Hansell, writer for the New York Times Bits blog, argued that such a proposal would give an unfair advantage to providers who were willing to place lower bids in exchange for winning a service spectrum that is less expensive than previous frequency ranges auctioned to other service providers.

Though I must agree with the response to Hansell’s article made by John Muleta of M2Z, which states that previous auctions have been unfairly bent in favor of large service providers, Hansell raises a good point. The winning bidder of an auction of such magnitude could very easily become a monopoly by placing an obscenely low bid, offering free service to the masses, and when that service is far too slow for most users, selling them a “high-speed service” that can access pornography, p2p networks or that unnamed “inappropriate” content, and online gaming. Hook users into free service and then, once they’ve purchased their wireless data cards, reel them into a paid service that offers similar or even worse service than that of the large providers today.

And don’t think for a second that any free offering made by the winning bidder of this hypothetical auction will sufficiently meet the demands of an every-day internet user. Imagine living in a dorm room of a building containing well over 300 rooms, where every occupant is trying to download music, stream YouTube video, play Xbox online, and chat on AIM. The internet slows to an unbearable crawl…and that’s on a T1 or T3 line with only a few thousand participants. Free service will effectively be no service.

Then there is the segment of the FCC chairman’s proposed plan that involves banning pornographic material or material found to be inappropriate for children. Though family values interest groups might like to dream of a time where the FCC sides with ethics and morals over pornography, such a time is really nowhere in sight. The pornography industry is booming.

A 2008 study by Brigham Young University demonstrated the vast reach of the pornography industry; the study revealed that the porn industry is valued at $57 billion annually world-wide, much of which comes either directly or indirectly through the internet. $12 billion of that comes by way of the U.S. To put it in perspective, the pornography industry’s revenue surpasses that of the American baseball, football and basketball franchises combined.

So offering a porn-free service will end one of two ways: participants will remember the morality inherent to American values and swear off pornography completely, thereby killing about 20% of global pornography revenue, or those same people will realize they need their porn, and buy into the “high-speed” porn-available service of the winning bidder. Couple that need for smut with snail-slow speeds that are sure to result from mass consumption of less than DSL speeds, and that winning bidder will be going to the bank on high-speed monthly service fees.

Of course, there is room to argue that a large portion of the U.S. population cannot afford high-speed internet, and that those people should be afforded the same opportunities for advancement available through internet use as the people who can afford a monthly service fee. However, it is doubtful all those people will be able to rush out and buy WiFi-equipped desktops or laptops to take advantage of the free service, and we’re all back at the point where money points out the flaws of social classes.

Inevitably, capitalism and greed will be the largest roadblock in the way of distributing free wireless internet to U.S. citizens, just as it has been for a long time. The government can’t afford to ignore the pornography industry, and therefore will have a hard time justifying the decision of the FCC to block pornography from free internet for the people. Careful consideration as to how the government plans to moderate the control of whatever bidder acquires the block of airwaves intended for free wireless internet use must be taken. Don’t plan on getting free internet anytime soon.

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3 Responses to “FCC-backed free internet promises certain conflict with porn industry, ISPs”

  1. Ralph:

    One scenario, the free version will have the porn blocked. The non free version will have no limits.

    This could follow the same exact model as what cable/satellite TV service uses. You want uncut movies, you pay for it. You want free TV, you can’t watch uncut movies.

    However, if they can block porn. They also can block other sites too that can be deemed “too political” ….sites like Alex Jones.

    And then we open yet a whole new can of worms and that is who determines whats “right” for the American people?

    A national censorship board? Or a self imposed rating system like the movie and gaming industry?

    Or make it available to anyone over the age of 18 and provide some free filtering to those that want certain sites blocked?

    One must also ask if this is the part of the long talked about “Internet 2″ where it will be highly restricted and controlled.

  2. Ken:

    This is similar in concept to the way telephone service was rolled out to everyone with long distance subsiding basic service where the lack of population was an issue.

    As Ralph mentioned, it’s not really different than OTA broadcasting. The FCC dictates what is acceptable content and it doesn’t seem to hurt the availability of Adult content for those who want it. I’m pretty sure banning porn from OTA broadcasts hasn’t killed it.

    It should drive down the price of pay broadband, it gives an option without needing to pay for it and someone will start offering cheap netbooks to specifically serve that market.

    Give me porn or give me death is a questionable stance. Making a law prohibiting any access to material is a free speech issue.

    Mandating full access to all material when alternatives exist is not.

    Weren’t you complaining about free wireless access everywhere a couple of months ago?

  3. Triston McIntyre:

    Ah Ken, I’ve missed you terribly. I don’t believe I was complaining, per se; I tend to think I try to illustrate the flaws in systems suggested for delivering free internet. Many cities have tried similar setups and failed miserably. I wasn’t taking a hard stance on anything; I simply illustrated possible problems with the proposed project. There’s a lot of people who have a serious problem with the way FCC decides what is or isn’t appropriate. A whole new set of issues will arise when the FCC starts ruling on the propriety of content on the internet (not just television).

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