Net Neutrality and the Fight for the Free Flow of Information
I don't text. I don't tweet, and I don't use Facebook or other social media. That may make me seem like a dinosaur to some but I do use the internet a lot. I rely on it as a source of information. I read all kinds of views, many from the international press, and I do a lot of research. I also comment on issues on various sites including Pilotonline. The internet is not only a vital source of information but also a virtual town square where ideas can be examined and shared. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt noted, our ability to think is dependent on access to factual truth and on our ability to communicate, to discuss and to learn from others. In our increasingly distant and alienated social reality, the open internet, free from government interference or corporate imposed limits plays a vital role.
The internet, and the access to it we have come to take for granted, is threatened at this moment by efforts to further privatize access, creating a tiered system, much like cable. Giant corporations like Comcast and Verizon have much to gain by an arrangement where they can decide what you can access on line based on how much you pay them. This undermines Net Neutrality, or the open internet we have had up to now and which many are struggling to maintain. The decider in this struggle is ultimately the Federal Communications Commission and its Chair Tom Wheeler, appointed by President Obama last may and formerly the top lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry. The FCC defines the legal rules under which communication systems, or “common carriers” operate, whether radio, telephone, TV, or the internet. Guarantees of fair access exist for most of these but new rules, pushed by corporate giants and so far supported by Wheeler, aim to exclude internet access by reclassifying it.
Robert McChesney, a media-reform advocate explains, “There’s tremendous incentive for Comcast or AT&T and Verizon to want to basically privatize the internet, to say 'We control what can get on the internet and what doesn’t, if you want to be on our network.' And then they can shake people down for money. It also has immense, unimaginable political power. The media reform movement, Free Press and others, have all organized on this for the last decade to prevent companies from using their monopoly power to be able to censor what gets through on the internet, so we have an open network. Now, if we actually had a public service like a post office system, it wouldn’t be a debate because there would be no incentive to censor dissident voices. Everyone would have access, no questions asked. It’s a huge fight, and it’s a difficult fight, because there’s so much money on the other side.”
As McChesney points out, Free Press is a group advocating for open communication and against censorship. Their website, explains this complicated issue in straightforward terms: “The open Internet is central to people’s freedom to communicate, share, advocate and innovate in the 21st century. But powerful interests want to censor free speech, block the sharing of information, hinder innovation and control how internet users get online.”
Should the FCC give in to pressure from Comcast and Verizon, many websites will all but disappear or be so hard to access and so slow to load that many won't bother. It also means that new internet businesses won't have a chance. This is a blatant attempt to monopolize and control the internet that affects every one of us. Congress and those in the FCC know this but policymakers continue as usual to tie themselves in knots to please their corporate backers. They need to hear from you.
Only a massive public outcry can change this. It is happening, but it requires as many of us as possible. What can you do to protect your freedom of access online? The Free Press site has a Petition to the head of the FCC urging him to scrap the proposed rules and restore the principle of online nondiscrimination by reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service.
You can call or FCC chair Tom Wheeler at 1-202-418-1000. You can send an e-mail to make your opinion known at email@example.com or direct a tweet to Wheeler @TomWheelerFCC urging him to protect Net Neutrality. The more who call, the better. For the activists reading this twho like big protests, Free Press is planing a major Day of Action in Washington D.C. on April 15, the day the FCC next meets. Besides Free Press, other groups including Demand Progress, Common Cause, RootsAction, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, and Public Knowledge have joined in the effort to stop what they fear will be the death of Net Neutrality. They want to insure that all online content continue to receive equal treatment free of corporate or government interference.
The free flow of information and the freedom of communication are vital requirements of an open society and of any semblance of democracy. The imminent fight to defend Net Neutrality is but one aspect. Newspapers, feeling the pinch of print competition with the internet are, like the Pilot, curtailing access to their online commentary, reducing the public square to a paid subscriber's club.Another related issue is the attempt by Google to monopolize and control all accumulated knowledge by creating a central database. They have competition in doing this from other internet giants. The idea of a central place for accumulated knowledge in the public interest is an ancient one with the most noted historical example being the Library of Alexandria which was burned down by Julius Cesar in 48 BC. Immense amounts of history were lost that day. Many civilizations have had similar institutions or central libraries. The idea of collecting and preserving knowledge and cultural history for public use is certainly a great one. It is why we have Libraries. It is something that computer programmer, writer, political organizer and media activist Aaron Swartz, died for.
Swartz had played an important role in defeating previous attempts to undermine the open internet. In 2010, he downloaded old academic articles at MIT provided by the nonprofit research service JSTOR in order to make them more publicly accessible. Even after the university agreed in principle, made the information public, and dropped charges against him, the federal government continued to charge him under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted. The legal fees required for his defense economically ruined himself his parents who even mortgaged their home to cover costs. The enormous stress drove him to suicide.
The problem with Google's efforts to digitize all the books on the planet ran into trouble because much of what they copied was copyrighted. Writers and publishers make their living selling books. That needs to be protected. Also, being a private corporation which profits from collecting and selling information about users of their services raised real concerns. Though the courts ruled against Google for copyright infringement, their efforts continue.
Admittedly, if you are like me, the issue of Net Neutrality seems complex, loaded with technical jargon and is hard to grasp, but ultimately it comes down to protecting our privacy and more importantly, our access to information. Broadband internet should be treated as other telecommunication services. In reality is has become a necessary utility. As a writer, researcher, and publisher I depend on access to a wide array of information, as do many others. All of us who value the free flow of information, global communication, and unlimited access to the web to need to get on board and take action. We may only have a few weeks before the FCC decides.