nthWORD– “The neutral communications medium is essential to our society. It is the basis of a fair competitive market economy. It is the basis of democracy, by which a community should decide what to do. It is the basis of science, by which humankind should decide what is true. Let us protect the neutrality of the net.”– Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, from his blog in 2006.
The invention of the Internet has arguably been one of the most significant technological achievements in the history of human communications, alongside of the printing press and the telephone. It has restructured the way people live and provides the opportunity for a disconnected and fragmented public to revolutionize into an interconnected, globally integrated civilization. Billions of people now live more productively by having instantaneous communication and unfettered access to information of their choosing.
Since its inception, the unregulated medium of the Internet has always adhered to the fundamental principle of “Net Neutrality”- the notion that all websites, from mega corporations to backroom bloggers, have an equal opportunity to reach people online. Under this principle, every website, regardless of the site’s material and amount of data, is given non-discriminatory treatment from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Verizon.
A 2006 poll taken by Glover Park Group revealed that 93% of Americans had never heard of the term “Net Neutrality.” The underreporting of this issue could be due to the fact that the corporations pushing to eliminate this online freedom -the ISPs- also guide most of what the American public sees, hears and reads in the mainstream media.
These companies have been drooling at the Web’s potential for raking in tons of money by eliminating Net Neutrality. In its place the Telecoms intend to create a tiered system of access that will make web users “pay to play,” charging more than we pay now for different levels of speed, accessibility, and quality of service. This would cause greater economic stratification by discriminating against low income households who lack the finances to utilize the Internet for education and employment. According to 2009 Commerce Department figures, 26% of Americans already can’t afford to subscribe to high speed Internet at the rate we pay now.
The controlled system of access will also reduce the representation of minorities in our communities, shutting out vital perspectives. Only 46% of African Americans and 40% of Hispanics use broadband, compared to 66% of Caucasians.
Even though America invented the World Wide Web, this country has fallen far behind other developed countries in Internet speed. Japan’s Internet speed is up to 30 times faster than the US, and many European nations have access that is 10 times faster on average. We already pay more for the service. The lowest Internet price on average in America is typically $35 a month on average for a 1 megabit connection. Speeds twice this fast are offered in Canada and Denmark for cheaper. Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Sweden all have broadband access for less than $20 a month.
In 2008, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) confronted Comcast for abusing the principle of Net Neutrality, by blocking content and slowing user access to certain file sharing websites.
Comcast contested the FCC’s ruling in court, resulting in a high profile case that has placed Net Neutrality in a state of emergency. In April of this year, the US Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC does not have the authority to enforce a neutral Internet, leaving the web more vulnerable than ever before to corporate consolidation. This means that the ISPs that provide and sell Internet access to the public could have the enhanced power of also controlling the limitations of your Internet experience, by deciding what you see and use online.
Salon.com blogger Saturn Smith provides an example for potential abuse-
“The ruling opens the door for companies to be able to slow or even block traffic to competing sites. For instance, Comcast currently runs a site called Fancast. Fancast is like Hulu, only well, less awesome. It offers TV episodes and movies, some news and entertainment stuff, and a lot of advertising for Comcast. Who’s to say now that Comcast wouldn’t make sure that anyone trying to access Hulu found it very slow going?”
Without Net Neutrality, higher costs will be imposed on hosting websites that use more space and bandwidth, and ISPs can start charging fees to companies for higher priority access speeds to their networks or their customers. This could lead to significantly slower access to independent websites and small startup businesses that cannot afford to pay the price hikes, eliminating the ability of the “small guy” to reach the same Internet consumer base as the larger corporations.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act protected a neutral Internet until the April court ruling. In June, the FCC fought back with a proposal backed by the Open Internet Coalition to reaffirm their authority in regulating broadband. They opened a procedure to debate its legal capabilities in overseeing telecommunications under the existing legal framework. The FCC still needs the legal backing to legitimize Net Neutrality and the ethical standard of an open and free Internet, an impossible objective without the help of Congress.
However, due to intense pressure from telecom lobbyists, much of Congress has aligned themselves with the telecom industry, even taking action on their behalf; 74 Congressional Democrats and 171 Congressional Republicans recently presented stern letters to the FCC urging them to abandon their Net Neutrality enforcement and leave the matter to Congress-
“[Regulation of broadband] should not be done without additional direction from Congress. We urge you not to move forward with a proposal that undermines critically important investment in broadband and the jobs that come with it.”
Unfortunately, the telecommunications companies invest big money in attempt to sway Congress. Five of the biggest telecom corporations in the country- Verizon, Time Warner, AT&T, Comcast, and Qwest collectively lobbied $218 million dollars to our Representatives and shelled out $23.7 million in campaign contributions from 2006-2008.
Now that the recent court decision and FCC rebuttal have left the Net Neutrality issue open ended, telecom firms are seizing on the uncertain future of the Web and are planning to hit Congress soon with another lobbying bonanza to ensure they get what they want.
All 74 Congressional Democrats that signed the letter to the FCC have received an average of $50,000 from phone and cable corporations. Representative Gene Green, who pushed through the Democrat’s letter, has received $111,199 from lobbying by the telecom industry.
The Representatives that spearheaded the Republicans’ letter to the FCC, Cliff Stearns and Joe Barton, have already collectively received over $177,000 in campaign contributions from AT&T, and $66,000 from Comcast in the last year alone. The other Republican signatories have similar campaign donation figures.
The respective letters to the FCC contain the typical anti-Net Neutrality disinformation that is spread through numerous fake grassroots -“astroturf”- organizations funded by the telecom industry. The main talking points are that Net Neutrality would bring heavy-handed government regulation, stifle innovation and reduce financial investment from telecom companies for improved broadband access.
In reality, the Internet is one step away from being regulated – by either the government making Net Neutrality a law, or from the telecom industry, which would gain full control to manage and restrict their networks without bureaucratic ramifications.
The government is a third party that is tasked with protecting the rights of American citizens. It is their responsibility to represent and act on behalf of their constituent base. Making Net Neutrality a law would prevent the telecom business from impeding free speech and access to information by making sure the Internet stays open and unrestricted.
Google, YouTube and Amazon flourished into incredibly successful online business models by starting off as small startups. A neutral Internet provides an equal playing field for the cultivation of new ideas. More importantly, it enables new ideas to prosper amongst the already established “big guys,” allowing for the development of and investment for new products and services and a competitive flow in the marketplace, in turn improving users’ options for better prices and higher quality of service.
The ethical imperative of Net Neutrality is about preventing private industries from having the ability to censor information based on their commercial interests. As citizens of this country, we should have the right to freely access information of our choosing, unimpeded and uncensored.
For the past three years, Representative Ed Markey has presented Net Neutrality legislation that would safeguard the Internet’s open future, but the bill has yet to make it past a House Committee. The preservation of Internet freedom will remain hanging in the balance until there is a strong constituency base demanding Congress to take action.
Unless people become involved with this issue, Capitalism will run roughshod. The Internet is a powerful democratic tool providing citizens with the ability to instantly share information. When armed with knowledge, people are more likely to become active citizens engaged with their society, and this is exactly what the power structure wants to prevent.
You can help by joining a network of 1 million + citizens for a neutral Internet at Save The Internet.
Abby Martin is a freelance writer, citizen journalist, activist and artist living in Oakland, CA. You can find more about her media projects at www.MediaRoots.org and check out her artwork at www.AbbyMartin.org
Photo by Abby Martin