12 April 2010

Internet Freedom : It's On the Line

The battle for Net Neutrality:
Corporate takeover or opportunity?

By Megan Tady / April 12, 2010

On Tuesday, April 6, a federal court decision put the Internet, and your ability to use it, in jeopardy. It’s a major setback for free speech online and for the prospects of connecting the entire country to broadband.

The Washington, DC, Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lacks the current authority to enforce rules that keep Internet service providers from blocking and controlling Internet traffic -- a principle called Net Neutrality.

The court ruled in favor of the Internet service provider Comcast, which was caught blocking the file sharing service BitTorrent in 2007 and contested the FCC’s attempts to stop the company. The decision makes it nearly impossible for the FCC to follow through with plans to create strong Net Neutrality protections that keep the Internet out of the hands of corporations. Additionally, without authority over broadband, the FCC could be unable to implement portions of its just released National Broadband Plan designed to bridge the digital divide.

Millions of Internet users don’t realize that a battle over the future of the Internet is being played out right now in Washington D.C.. On one side are public interest and consumer groups, small businesses, Internet entrepreneurs, librarians, civil libertarians, and civil rights groups. They want to preserve the Internet as it is -- the last remaining open communications platform where anyone with access and a computer can create and consume online content. The principle of “Network Neutrality” is what makes this open communications possible. Net Neutrality is what allows us to go wherever we want online.

In a message to members of the organization ColorofChange.org, Director James Rucker stressed the importance of Net Neutrality for voices, perspectives, and communities traditionally marginalized and ignored. “For Black folks, [Net Neutrality] is crucial,” he writes. “For the first time in history we can communicate with a global audience -- for entertainment, education, or political organizing -- without prohibitive costs, or mediation by gatekeepers in government or industry.”

On the other side of this battle are the Internet service providers who want to dismantle Net Neutrality. Not only do they want to provide Internet service, but they want to be able to charge users to prioritize their content, effectively giving the Internet service providers the ability to choose which content on the Web loads fast, slow, or not at all.

The foundation for the Net Neutrality battle began in 2002 with the Bush FCC reclassifying broadband as an “information service” rather than a “telecommunications service.” This was a huge blow to Internet protections like Net Neutrality because the FCC doesn’t have the same regulatory oversight over information services that it has over telecommunications services.

It is this classification loophole, coupled with the D.C. Circuit’s decision, that let Comcast wiggle out from under the FCC’s thumb and convince the courts that the FCC has no business clamping down on their Net Neutrality violations. And it is this loophole that will make the FCC powerless when it comes to achieving many of the objectives set out in the Obama administration’s national broadband plan to provide high speed Internet access to rural America.

The FCC can resurrect its power by changing broadband back to a “telecommunications service.” Reclassifying broadband will make these questions about FCC authority obsolete, allowing the agency to get back to the important work of protecting free speech online and bridging the digital divide.

While this fix may seem simple, it will take political courage from the FCC and Chairman Julius Genachowski to do the right thing. The telecom industry will be hammering the FCC with pressure to keep broadband a lawless land in order to deepen their control and enormous profits. At the same time, concerned Americans are encouraging the FCC to protect Net Neutrality and the national broadband plan.

Free Press Director Josh Silver reminded the public what’s at stake during an interview Wednesday on Democracy Now! “People have to remember, all media -- television, radio, phone service -- every type of media other than the printed page, will soon be delivered by a broadband or Internet connection.”

Like me, you love the Internet. It takes you where you want to go. Frustrated with mainstream media you have found alternative news and information online, like this very site. You turn on your computer and you’re connected to the world. Our relationship with the phone and cable companies should stop when we pay for our Internet service. These companies should not be able to block, control, or interfere with what we search for or create online. Nor should they be able to prioritize some content over others.

Let’s hope the court just handed the FCC the best opportunity to make a systemic change to how they oversee our nation’s primary communications platform, and their ability to stop the corporate takeover of the Internet once and for all.

[Megan Tady is a blogger and campaign coordinator for the national, non-profit media reform organization Free Press. Megan has traveled across the country interviewing people who struggle to live and work without high-speed Internet access. This article was published in Women's International Perspective and distributed by Media Channel.]

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