Protecting the Internet

By enabling an open, diverse and free-flowing Web, the Internet -- under its founding principle of Net Neutrality – unleashed a tidal wave of civic participation.

Many of us in the Web of Change community have been riding that wave from the beginning. The social change organizations we work for and with all rely upon the level playing field of an open Internet to spread the word about their work, engage more people with their issues, and build genuine support at the grassroots level.

Net Neutrality is vital to ensuring that everyone has a voice on issues of public concern.

Right now, Washington is in the midst of a critical debate over whether the Internet in the U.S. will continue to serve as an essential vehicle for free speech, economic opportunity and civic engagement.

If you haven't been following the Net Neutrality debate, you can catch up here.

President Obama and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have pledged to preserve the Internet's openness by enacting Net Neutrality rules that ensure all voices are given an equal chance to flourish on the Internet.

But the Internet's value as a medium for civic and democratic engagement is now at risk.

Following a federal appeals court decision last month, the FCC must reassert its authority to protect Internet users and to serve as a watchdog over our nation's dominant communications medium. Obama's FCC now faces a choice:

  • Or reclassify Internet service as a telecommunications service, reestablishing the FCC's authority to stop Internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking and controlling the flow of Internet traffic.

The Bush-era FCC, under intense lobbying from big telecom companies, had removed this classification, leaving the FCC with very limited powers to stop providers from blocking Internet traffic. Now, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has indicated that he may not move forward in favor of reclassification.

It's a dangerous gambit -- one that leaves the future of the Internet hanging in the balance.

Without rules to prevent discrimination, Internet providers will be free to choose whose voices are more important and whose get left out. Imagine an Internet where the FCC would be powerless to stop your ISP from doing the following (adapted from an initial list by Marvin Ammori, an advisor to Free Press):

  1. Block any online activity, like tweets containing certain phrases or hashtags, or your vote at Consumerist.com, when you voted Comcast the worst company in the U.S.
  2. Force advocacy organizations to register their web pages and abide by the same bureaucratic rules that apply to donations by text message.
  3. Threaten to block your small but thriving online business/service unless you share 1/3 or more of all your revenues (apps in the iPhone app store often are forced to give up a 1/3 or more; so are cable channels on cable TV).
  4. Block any application of peer-to-peer technology (or any other Internet-based technology), even those used for software developers to share software, distribute patches and distribute open source software.
  5. Block the Huffington Post, Moveon.org, or ColorofChange.org (and their email communication), because of an "exclusive" deal with other websites. Or just as easily, block FoxNews.com because of a deal with NBC and MSNBC.
  6. Monitor what you do online and sell it to advertisers, something else that some phone and cable companies have done, with the help of a spyware company.

ISPs have already floated some of these practices; others are predictions that could happen in the future. The problem is, without proper authority to keep ISPs in check, the FCC is technically powerless to stop this sort of behavior.

Failure to protect the open nature of the Internet would impair our ability to share information, empower people, and carry out our public interest work. As prominent members of the nonprofit sector, we must urge the FCC to take action now to reclassify broadband transmission as a telecommunications service and affirmatively safeguard the free flow of information and ideas online.
 
If we want to preserve the Web of Change that we have so arduously built up and not succumb to the “Web of More of the Same” from Big Media gatekeepers, we need to put Net Neutrality -- the first amendment of our Internet freedoms -- on solid legal ground. As a member of the Web of Change community, you can start by telling the FCC how important this is to you.

Call Chairman Genachowski at 202.418.1000 or email him and tell him to protect the open Internet.
 
UPDATE: 5/5/2010
Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, stated his intent to move to reclassify broadband as a Title II telecommunications service. Free Press is eager to see the details and evaluate whether the commission’s approach is the best path toward achieving the goals of open, affordable, world-class Internet access.

Neal is the web director at Free Press, a national nonprofit organization working to reform the media and conveners of the SavetheInternet.com coalition. Prior to joining Free Press, Neal was the senior online communications director at Metropolitan Group, a full-service creative and strategic communications firm dedicated to serving clients with a social purpose. He holds a master's degree in English with a focus on online communication from Colorado State University and is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Oregon's Applied Information Management graduate program. You can follow Neal on Twitter @nbaste