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Students at Presentation on the Law School's Summer Study Abroad Program
Professor Susan Crawford Delivers the DeWitt Higgs Lecture at California Western

Photo Courtesy of California Western School of Law

Dewitt Higgs Lecturer Says High-Speed Internet   Service is as Vital as Electricity
Professor Susan Crawford calls for inexpensive, universal Internet service

SAN DIEGO, April 23, 2014 - “Today the electricity of our economy is high-speed Internet access,” said Professor Susan Crawford.  Delivering the 2014 DeWitt Higgs Lecture at California Western School of Law, she focused on what she sees as a vital issue to our country’s well-being–high-speed Internet access for everyone. “It took decades to get low-cost universal electrification across the country.”

In 1935, 90 percent of electricity was controlled by just 12 companies, Crawford explained. “But President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took on the special interests—all privatized,” as he led the political fight to electrify America.

Crawford says that when it comes to high-speed Internet access, the U.S. needs to regulate providers to make the service affordable and available to everyone.

“We need universal access—this is just like electricity— everybody needs to have it,” Crawford said. This is America. We should be the leader in world-class access.”

Yet, Crawford says the U.S. is far behind many countries in access and affordability.

“What we’re experiencing in this country is a ‘digital divide.’ Fully a third of Americans don’t have a wired connection now, mostly because it’s too expensive. It’s essential for everything you want to do in life.”

Crawford says that if the merger between  the two biggest Internet service providers—Comcast and Time-Warner Cable—is approved, the two companies will have more than 33 million subscribers and virtually own the marketplace—about  90 percent of the customers.

“How could it be that Shamu and Godzilla get to merge?”, asked Crawford. “Comcast sees it as a virtue the fact that the two companies don’t compete–that’s because they divided up the country a long time ago.”

Crawford believes it could be up to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to define the rules of engagement when it comes to regulating Internet service for the masses.

“The FCC does not consider high-speed Internet access a utility,” said Crawford. “It’s free from any regulatory oversight. The FCC could change its mind, but the carriers say it will be World War Three if they do.”

Carriers are using the First Amendment as a shield against regulation, Crawford argues.

She summarizes the Internet carriers’ argument like this: “We build facilities that carry data, so it is speech and we have a person’s right to edit that speech, therefore any restraint on us is presumptively unconstitutional.”

Crawford’s counter argument to that?

“What’s going on here is conduct, not speech. It’s like walking to the bank and someone saying ‘your money or your life’ and then claiming First Amendment protection because all he was doing is speaking. Allowing Comcast to get away with this claim is trivializing the First Amendment. It amounts to a ‘get out of jail free card’ for Internet-related industries.” 

Is all Internet content created equal?   Crawford believes the answer is yes.

That concept is called either “net neutrality” or non-discrimination, a term Crawford prefers.

“The basic idea is that a communications network should be like the sidewalk—not interested in the value of speech going across it,” she says.

The FCC has just proposed new net neutrality regulations to keep Internet content free from discrimination by carriers. However, it would also create a fast-lane for carriers to give preferential treatment to certain content providers—if they pay for it.

Crawford points to the Swedish capital, Stockholm, as an example of how high-speed Internet service can be provided to users inexpensively. Stockholm built a fiber network 20 years ago that is owned by the city, with private competition by retailers to sell the service to customers. Crawford says the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee has built a similar network.

“In Chattanooga, they realize that high-speed Internet service is just like electricity,” Crawford said. “It’s going to take a titanic battle to get us to the point of this national upgrade. We shouldn’t let the First Amendment get in the way.  The next time you go home and flip on an electric light, think about the political fight it took to get there.”

About the DeWitt Higgs Memorial Lecture
DeWitt “Dutch” Higgs graduated from California Western School of Law in 1934. He founded the firm of Higgs, Fletcher and Mack, one of San Diego’s leading local firms, and served as the region’s first representative on the University of California Board of Regents. The lecture recognizes his contributions to the law, education, and academic freedom and is sponsored by California Western School of Law and UC San Diego’s Earl Warren College, Law and Society Program, and the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies.