Net Neutrality Rollbacks Threaten Local Media

Susan Flesichmann, Executive Director of Cambridge Community Television, discusses the possible implications of the net neutrality rollbacks on local media at the CCTV studios in Cambridge, Mass. Nov. 30, 2017. Photograph by Nicki Gitter/BU News Service

By Nicki Gitter
BU News Service

CAMBRIDGE—By the end of this month, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission hopes to remove certain Obama-era regulations that ensure equal access to a “free and open internet,” also known as net neutrality. The changes could have consequences for smaller local media outlets and their consumers.

In Cambridge, many residents rely on local independent news sources for information about issues and the community. People at these outlets say they fear that access to their content may be restricted if these new rules are to be implemented.

Jason Pramas, the executive editor of DigBoston, an alternative newspaper and online publication based in Cambridge, voiced his concerns.

“It’s a very bad idea to give any entity the power to speed up or slow down people’s service,” he said over the phone.

He also noted that the public’s response to the FCC’s proposed overhaul would be an important component in the fight to stop the deregulations.

“The public has to react strongly to this,” Pramas said. “There is a history of the public reacting strongly… across the political spectrum.”

When the FCC was considering net neutrality in 2014, they received almost 4 million comments that were mostly in favor of the measure according to government transparency watchdog group the Sunlight Foundation.

The current standards stop broadband and wireless providers from blocking or slowing down access to online content. All content–whether from Netflix or the local blogger–is supposed to be equally accessible.

The Trump administration’s proposed deregulation would allow providers to slow down or speed up content of their choosing.

The current rules were passed by the FCC in February of 2015 under the Obama administration.

Opponents of the net-neutrality repeal have said they are mainly concerned that “pay-to-play” deals would favor wealthy, powerful content providers, and that newcomers or smaller independent entities would have trouble finding and keeping target consumers.

On the other hand, proponents of the repeal said the Obama administration’s regulations on broadband companies restricted them too much. They also said that charging different prices for higher value “items” is normal in a healthy market.

In a statement released in March, Trump-appointed Chairman of the FCC Ajit Pai said that the current regulations are “heavy-handed.”

“Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet,” he said. “Instead, the FCC would simply require internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them and entrepreneurs and other small businesses can have the technical information they need to innovate.”

While the FCC and internet providers alike have attempted to reassure the public that tactics such as throttling, the implementation of “fast” and “slow” internet lanes, and higher subscription prices will not occur if Pai’s proposal is passed, smaller entities—including local news media outlets—are still expressing concern.

Cambridge Day, an online-only news and entertainment source based in Boston, is one of these outlets. Editor Marc Levy said that content providers such as these could be negatively affected by the FCC’s proposed guidelines. The rollback makes way for internet giants to gain more and more control of online content, he said.

“The FCC has loosened the rules about what you can own and companies tend to go in the direction of controlling every aspect of their business,” Levy said.

Susan Fleischmann, Executive Director of Cambridge Community Television (CCTV), explained how the new proposal could affect its audience.

“It’s no secret that people are cutting the cord,” she said of the widespread move to online content consumption.

“We’ve been trying to diversify distribution for quite some time and relying still—of course—on program air channels, but also thinking about social media and the internet as another means of distribution for people’s programs,” she added.

CCTV operates on local cable channels 8, 9 and 96. Their programs feature content produced by local cultural organizations, residents and Cambridge city agencies.

Fleischmann said that CCTV is meant to be accessible to everyone within the community. The newly proposed FCC guidelines, she said, threaten the availability of local content that media outlets such as CCTV provide.

“The issue is, as we move more and more to put our programming on the internet,” Fleischmann said, “how could we possibly compete with CBS, NBC, ABC and all the other very large content providers that could afford the bigger pipes if there were no net neutrality?”


Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named DigBoston as a publication based in Boston. 

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