As the leading organization representing thousands of digital journalists worldwide, we’d like to respond to that question: The right public policy is one that ensures the Internet serves as an unrestricted platform for a rich, diverse and inclusive news media ecosystem.
When the Online News Association first formed in 1999, an estimated 100 million Internet users in the United States alone, most on dial-up modems, surfed a web of fewer than 5 million websites. Since then, the explosive expansion of media has been powered by an Internet open to all. Where once there was a single news provider for many cities, today we see 250 million Americans, more than a third of whom are on high-speed broadband, visiting the 861 million-plus websites for news, information and entertainment. Simply put, the media environment we have today, unrivaled in human history, would not have been possible without the past 20 years of an Internet open by design.
That’s what makes this issue so compelling. What is at stake in the new rule-making is the American public’s ability to be informed, to communicate and to easily share and spread ideas.
The New York Times has a print subscription of 1.25 million readers. And yet, more than 50 million people read The Times online every month. The Huffington Post, less than 10 years old, attracts nearly 100 million readers a month. Even Vox Media, which is younger than many people’s computers, already attracts 20 times the readers to its site as the Times does in print. News and information is reaching more people than ever before. And readers have more options, more voices, more perspectives, than at any other time in history. We view all of this as an immeasurable boon.
“Freedom of the Press is for those who own one,” or “Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel” no longer apply. The open Internet has allowed journalism to flourish or flounder based on the quality of the work, not on the quantity of capital.
But this is all at stake if the Internet is segregated into tiers, or “lanes.” By giving priority to some content, making it faster and easier to consume, ISPs could, intentionally or not, give some information or journalistic outlets a market advantage, solely because they can afford higher tolls.
Such behavior would have a pernicious effect. Over time, preferential treatment through “prioritized” or “fast lanes” could strike a blow to media diversity, innovation and the free flow of information. Creating or even maintaining alternative or independent perspectives could become financially untenable. Worse, since many ISPs are also content companies, they’d have an incentive to be anticompetitive and prioritize their content over that of competitors.
The result wouldn’t just be one less startup, or a video that takes a few seconds longer to buffer. Instead, we could lose a rich media ecosystem — the cornerstone of a well-informed citizenry and a healthy democracy. Hundreds of nonprofit news sites, many created after the recession of 2008, countless startups and independent journalism outlets that serve as watchdogs for our local institutions, the platforms that enable information sharing — these add up to something greater than the sum of their parts.
ONA strongly supports a robust Internet infrastructure, but this is not a competing consideration to an open Internet. We believe policymakers can create a plan that continues to build out our Internet capabilities while adhering to the core principles of an open Internet that have served us so well for so long. Just as important as a stable, fast and widespread Internet is one that preserves the integrity of a free press, and supports an informed and engaged public.
We submit to the FCC that protecting the voice and reach of an inclusive, diverse media — including traditional, nonprofit, start-up, digital-only, independent, citizen, student and educator news organizations — demands the abandonment of the tiered Internet proposal. We urge the FCC to seek out other ways to preserve and balance the open Internet with the need to build out our telecommunications infrastructure without compromising the principles of free distribution. We don’t have to sacrifice one to serve the other.