Vatican II, the Right to Information, and Net Neutrality

May 16, 2017

Back in March the New York Times reported that the Trump administration announced its intention to “jettison the Obama administration’s net neutrality rules, which were intended to safeguard free expression online.” [1] “The net neutrality rules,” as the Times explained, “approved by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015, aimed to preserve the open internet and ensure that it could not be divided into pay-to-play fast lanes for web and media companies that can afford it and slow lanes for everyone else.”

Why is this important?

One way to understand the argument for net neutrality is to think of the internet like electricity. Your electric company sells you electricity, you buy it, and that’s the end of the transaction. The electric company doesn’t tell you how you can use the electricity. It doesn’t say that you can only power a refrigerator made by a company that it has a special relationship with. It doesn’t provide less power for other refrigerators, or none. The use of the electricity sold you is left entirely in your discretion. [2] In the same way, your internet service provider (ISP) shouldn’t be permitted to reduce or prohibit your access to anything on the internet. It should not be allowed, the argument goes, “’to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas….’” The “Internet should be a reliable way to access content produced by anyone, regardless of whether they have any special business arrangement with the utility.”

But in early April, in apparent furtherance of the Trump administration’s goals, “Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai reportedly met with broadband industry lobby groups…to discuss his plans for eliminating net neutrality rules.” [3] The idea he presented was that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would no longer enforce net neutrality rules, while the ISPs would, somehow, agree to voluntarily maintain an open internet. Jurisdiction over the question would then pass to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which would enforce these pledges “to abide by net neutrality principles such as no blocking or paid prioritization of Internet traffic” on deceptive or unfair trade practices grounds. That sounds perfectly sensible, until it is remembered that ISPs would be asked to voluntarily subject themselves to these requirements. And why would they do that if they determined they could make more money through either blocking some internet traffic or setting up paid-for prioritization, or both?

The reason why Mr. Pai wants to do this thing is because, he claims, “existing regulations are hurting the internet. He said that the 12 largest internet service providers reduced investment by 5.6 percent between 2014 and 2016 because the net neutrality rules were too onerous.” [4] Unsurprisingly, there are those who say that “he is cherry-picking data to make his case. Free Press, a public-interest group that supports net neutrality, found that total investment by publicly traded broadband companies increased 5.3 percent between 2013-14 and 2015-16.” But, really, all of this “misses the bigger point,” as a New York Times article from April points out.

“Net neutrality is meant to benefit the internet and the economy broadly, not just the broadband industry. That means the commission ought to consider the impact the regulations have on consumers and businesses. In particular, the commission has a responsibility to protect people with few or no choices; most Americans have access to just one or two companies for residential service and just four big operators for wireless.”  

Abolishing net neutrality would place ISPs in the position of controlling what their customers have access to. That would run counter to the social utility of having ISPs in the first place. We need ISPs in order to open up to us the world of information provided by the internet, and allowing them to restrict that information in any way, and for any reason, would defeat their essential purpose. It would be allowing them to deliberately make the service they provide their customers worse. Of course, the fact that an uncompetitive circumstance prevails in the relevant market is what allows ISPs to consider doing such a thing to begin with.

But there is something even more pernicious at hand. The ability to block internet traffic, or slow it down, while it certainly will give an unfair advantage to companies that are able to pay the new tolls imposed by the ISPs, will also give ISPs the ability to regulate for political content. Moreover, it will give ISPs the power to censor facts that are inconvenient to certain political points of view. Although the internet can be criticized as being a source of misrepresentations, it has also made a wider array of information available to us than ever before. If that information becomes subject to corporate control, what is perhaps the chief benefit of the internet will disappear from American life.

In Inter Mirifica, Vatican II’s “Decree on the Media of Social Communications,” the Church says this: 

“Among the wonderful technological discoveries which men of talent, especially in the present era, have made with God’s help, the Church welcomes and promotes with special interest those which have a most direct relation to men’s minds and which have uncovered new avenues of communicating most readily news, views and teachings of every sort.” (Sec. 1) [5]

Of course, the internet had not been invented at the time of the Second Vatican Council. Still, it is plain from this wording that the Church looks favorably on new means of communicating important information, which the internet most certainly is. The reason why the Church would have this attitude is because of the right of people to information.

“The prompt publication of affairs and events provides every individual with a fuller, continuing acquaintance with them, and thus all can contribute more effectively to the common good and more readily promote and advance the welfare of the entire civil society. Therefore, in society men have a right to information, in accord with the circumstances in each case, about matters concerning individuals or the community.” (Sec. 5)

Because of that right, public authorities have certain duties.

“The public authority, in these matters, is bound by special responsibilities in view of the common good, to which these media are ordered. The same authority has, in virtue of its office, the duty of protecting and safeguarding true and just freedom of information, a freedom that is totally necessary for the welfare of contemporary society, especially when it is a question of freedom of the press. It ought also to encourage spiritual values, culture and the fine arts and guarantee the rights of those who wish to use the media.” (Sec. 12)  

It seems apparent, then, that governmental authorities have an obligation to protect the free flow of information over the internet. But that cannot be accomplished by allowing private ISPs to control the content that their customers are able to view or view well. It is not their purpose for existence, and the effect of such activity can only be detrimental to that purpose. Net neutrality should by all means be retained and preserved.

Jack Quirk