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Opinion: Net Neutrality repeal could damage local news startups

in News/Opinion

Information must flow freely for democracy to flourish

By Matt DiRienzo/LION Publishers

The Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on repealing Net Neutrality on Dec. 14.

Repealing Net Neutrality would allow giant chain media to work in concert with internet conglomerates to limit access to independent, alternative, and local news sites — including Wausau Pilot & Review, according to LION Publishers.

That would mean giving a clear go-ahead for a tilted playing field.

Local Independent Online News Publishers is a national nonprofit organization with more than 180 members operating locally focused news sites in 42 states. Wausau Pilot & Review has been a member since the organization’s March launch.

LION issued a statement on Monday expressing deep concern about the FCC’s proposal to scrap Net Neutrality rules.

Access to information and local journalism that holds government and other powerful institutions accountable is essential to a functioning democracy, economic well-being, and human rights.

These pillars are already under severe strain from the dominance of a handful of large tech platforms, and the rapid consolidation of the newspaper and broadcasting industry under the control of a few enormous corporate chains.

Local independent online news sites are springing up all over the country to fill gaps in local journalism, but they rely on an Internet based on a level playing field for all publishers and readers, regardless of size or resources.

If Net Neutrality goes away, big Internet and wireless providers will be able to charge individual publishers for levels of speed and access, a scenario in which a handful of big companies with deep pockets could squeeze out the kind of small, independent news publishers who are part of LION.

This would severely limit citizens’ access to information and could be devastating to local news, which big publishers have whittled to the barest of bones.

Essentially, content from MegaChainNews or CorporateInterestNetwork would be served up as fast as possible, if those corporations paid up. Smaller publishers — including especially local, independent outlets like Wausau Pilot & Review — would be shoved aside into a “slow lane.” With studies showing that many readers will abandon slow-loading pages, that means news that isn’t backed by the deepest of pockets would be far less likely to reach the eyes and ears of those who would be purposefully led toward more lowest-common-denominator clickbait.

“The FCC’s proposal would destroy the Internet as we know it by allowing IPSs to limit or block content,” said Charlotte-Anne Lucas, director of NOWCastSA in San Antonio and a founding member of LION’s Board of Directors. “Our news organization streams government meetings and public events, giving people greater access to government. Scuttling the principles of Net Neutrality would undermine our very democracy by allowing cable, phone and other Internet connector companies to throttle our content and limit the public’s access to government.”

We believe this proposal threatens the very nature of open online access to vital news that in many communities is citizens’ only source of information. Any proposal that slows down or blocks to access to news content that people need to become fully informed citizens is unacceptable.

Internet commerce has grown by leaps and bounds in large part because it has been an equal playing field. ISPs certainly should be able to base their rates on the quantity of data being transmitted, but they should not be in the business of setting rates based on the types of content that they convey to readers, viewers and users.

They certainly should not be able to provide favored status to those content creators and data services who pay them more.

The proposal to eliminate Net Neutrality rules would create an opaque layer of market manipulation that will serve to enrich the few at the expense of many, and undermine the free flow of news and information that is essential to our democratic society.

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