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The FCC, net neutrality and the stirring of a hornet's nest

Commentary: Net Neutrality has finally become a kitchen-table issue and now everyone who cares about keeping the Internet free from discrimination has an opportunity to tell the Federal Communications Commission what they think.
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(Emily Judem/GlobalPost)

WASHINGTON, DC — At a five-year-old’s birthday party over the weekend, I chatted with a therapist, a publishing executive and a furniture maker (no, this is not the opening to a bad joke). The subject matter wasn’t the flavor of the ice cream. Everyone wanted to talk about net neutrality, the principle that all online content must be treated equally — and the biggest tech issue of the moment.

No one understood why a Democratic Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman President Barack Obama had appointed would make the disastrous decision to end free speech and innovation online.

“Doesn’t the president support net neutrality?” one person asked. “How could he let this happen?”

My friends were responding to last week’s vote on the future of the Internet, in which three Democratic FCC commissioners voted to move forward with a plan that would trigger a corporate takeover of the Internet, ushering in an era of inequality and discrimination online.

Rather than maintain the Internet as a free and open platform, companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are pushing to create a two-tiered Internet, with a fast lane for the few who can afford the extra fees — and a slow dirt road for the rest of us.

On the morning of the FCC vote, a couple hundred protesters — including me and others from Free Press — rallied outside the FCC to voice our opposition to the plan. We represented nonprofit organizations, independent media companies, dissident political groups, tech companies, musicians and others fighting for Internet freedom.

And as this net neutrality-themed birthday party illustrates, our message is getting out there.

People from all walks of life are awake to the possibility that the Internet as we know it — a revolutionary platform for free expression, innovation and democracy itself — could disappear. Dozens of members of Congress, hundreds of companies and organizations and top technology investors have all come out against the FCC’s plan. Educators, librarians and artists are speaking up. Net neutrality has finally become a kitchen-table issue.

Here’s what I told my friends at the birthday party: Yes, President Obama has on numerous occasions expressed his support for net neutrality. On the campaign trail in 2007, he told a young audience, “I will take a back seat to no one when it comes to net neutrality.”

And yet twice — first with former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and now with Chairman Wheeler — Obama’s failed to put the right people in place to get the job done. In the case of Wheeler, we have a former top lobbyist for the cable industry proposing industry-friendly rules that would lead to the total breakdown of the free and open Internet.

“But why?” my friend asked. “Even if Wheeler is a former cable lobbyist, why can’t he do what the president clearly wants to do?”

“The answer,” I said, “is the power of lobbyists and plain old political cowardice.”

According to Chairman Wheeler, his proposal would outlaw online discrimination and give the FCC the authority to go after those who try to hurt the open Internet. The reality is that these proposed rules would condone “pay-to-play” schemes in which Internet service providers (ISPs) could demand extra fees from websites and services — from content companies like Netflix to social platforms like Facebook to independent media outlets like the Daily Caller and Democracy Now! — in exchange for speedy delivery of that content.

This two-tiered system would destroy our ability to access and share information. Thanks to the Internet’s fundamental design, when you speed up some content you automatically slow down all other content. The result is an unequal Internet where those who can afford it reach their audiences in record time while everyone else is left in the dust, waiting for pages to load and stuck with choppy, unwatchable video. This disparity is the very essence of discrimination online.

In addition to protesting Wheeler’s disastrous proposal, net neutrality supporters are also calling for reclassification of broadband providers as “common carriers.” Reclassification would require ISPs to treat all content equally. It would also allow the FCC to pass comprehensive and legally sound Net Neutrality protections and to go after companies that violate these rules.

Why won’t Chairman Wheeler do this? Here’s where lobbyists and political cowardice come in.

The chairman is searching for a way to protect the open Internet without stirring up a hornet's nest of cable and phone lobbyists, who have used their power to kill any policies that might stop them from slicing up the Internet and offering fast service to the highest bidder.

But Wheeler can’t have it both ways. He can either pass strong rules that treat ISPs as common carriers and give the FCC the authority it needs to protect Net Neutrality — or he can let ISPs take over the Internet. Unfortunately for us, so far the chairman has opted for the latter.

But not all is lost. In fact, last week was just the beginning of this fight. The FCC is now soliciting public input on its proposed rules.

This is an opportunity for everyone who cares about keeping the Internet free from discrimination — journalists, small-business owners, educators, political organizers, therapists at kids’ birthday parties — to weigh in. We have until July 15 to file comments in the FCC’s database. We’ve built a page that makes it easy to weigh in — just go here to tell the FCC why it needs to protect real net neutrality.

We need to let Chairman Wheeler know that by proposing rules that cater to the ISPs, he’s stirred up another hornet's nest — one full of Internet users like you and me.

Josh leads Free Press’ campaigns to restore net neutrality, stop government and corporate surveillance, curb media consolidation and promote press freedom.

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This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.

 

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