The next time you use the Internet, type the phrase “net neutrality” into your favorite search engine. You might be surprised by all the information you’ll find on network neutrality — a topic that most Americans have never even heard of. And yet, for anyone who uses the Internet — for e-mail, online shopping, research or recreation — the principle of net neutrality is vital for keeping the Internet the open communication platform we have come to know.
Put simply, net neutrality protections ensure that network operators provide nondiscriminatory access to the network and online content. Think about it like this: When you make a phone call, the telephone company can’t keep you from talking to whomever you want, or prevent you from talking about whatever you like. Net neutrality applies the same operating principle to Internet communication.
Net neutrality is nothing new; these provisions have been in place since the Internet’s inception. Indeed, these guidelines helped make the Internet what it is: a vehicle for economic development, technological innovation and democratic communication. But if network operators, led by the telephone and cable television industries, have their way, net neutrality will be a thing of the past.
Their plan is simple. First, spend millions of dollars lobbying Congress and the Federal Communication Commission to eliminate long-standing net neutrality provisions. By some estimates, the telephone companies have been spending $1 million a week on this issue.
Second, wage a misinformation campaign that distorts the issue. For example, representatives of the cable and telephone industries argue that the government has no right to tell them what to do with “their pipes.” What these network operators neglect to mention are the enormous government subsidies that went into creating the Internet in the first place — and that continue to support network build-out, all at taxpayers’ expense.
Few people outside of Washington, D.C., know that the FCC is currently considering renewal of net neutrality rules. If these rules are eliminated, the telephone and cable companies will move ahead with their plan to create an Internet “fast lane.”
Under this scheme, content providers will have to pay network operators a steep fee to have their material delivered to computer users. Those who could not afford to pay these fees — nonprofit groups, small businesses, civic organizations, bloggers and the like — would be relegated to the “slow lane.”
This pay-as-you-go formula runs counter to the Internet’s democratic character. Furthermore, with this level of control over Internet access, network operators would have little incentive to upgrade their systems. And entrepreneurs, like those who created Google, eBay, MySpace and YouTube, would be at the mercy of network operators in order to gain access to the network. In short, monopoly control of the Internet undermines technological innovation and stifles competition.
Despite the profound implications for the way we use the Internet, there has been very little public discussion of proposals to eliminate net neutrality provisions. Fortunately, a number of organizations, such as the Consumers Union, The Free Press and SavetheInternet.com have been keeping tabs on the net neutrality debate. These groups host websites with valuable resources, including background information about net neutrality, policy analysis and tools that make it easy to contact congressional representatives and FCC commissioners on this crucial public policy issue.
We can keep the Internet open, maintain its entrepreneurial spirit, and preserve its democratic character, or we can let the cable and telephone companies privatize the Internet and allow network operators to determine how, and at and what price, we can access online news, information and culture.
Congress needs to hear from the public on net neutrality, as does the Federal Communication Commission. The FCC’s deadline for public comment is June 15. Free Press