A growing movement for “net neutrality”, as a key to preserve a free and open Internet, scored a major step forward this past Wednesday when U.S. Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to stop broadband Internet service providers from slowing Internet traffic or charging extra fees to content providers for faster access to their websites. Rep. Chip Pickering, Republican of Missouri, co-sponsors the bill.
The “Internet Freedom Preservation Act” would amend the Communications Act of 1934, American telecommunications’ defining legal framework. According to the billâ€™s summary:
“The Internet Freedom Preservation Act is designed to assess and promote Internet freedom for consumers and content providers. Internet freedom generally embodies the notion that consumers and content providers should be free to send, receive, access and use the lawful applications, content, and services of their choice on broadband networks â€¦ and that content providers not be subjected to new, discriminatory charges by broadband network providers. These general principles have often been referred to as ‘network neutrality’ principles as well.”
The bill also instructs the FCC to convene at least eight “broadband summits” across the country. Timothy Karr of Free Press says, “This bill takes the issue outside of the Beltwayâ€”and away from the corrupting influences of telecom lobbyistsâ€”to the communities across the country that want to share in the enormous economic and social benefits of an open Internet.”
Net neutrality is the principle that all Internet traffic must be treated equally, barring Internet providers from interfering with or discriminating against web traffic based on its source, destination, content or ownership. The movement for net neutrality is led by the Save the Internet coalition, which is coordinated by the media rights group Free Press. Save the Internet argues that “with net neutrality, the network’s only job is to move dataâ€”not choose which data to privilege with higher quality service.”
Large cable and telephone companies want to become gatekeepers and “tax” content providers (e.g., websites, your blog) to assure a fast connection to their data. They also want to speed up access to their own sites and slow down access to competitors. According to Save the Internet, they have a new vision for the information superhighway: “they want to reserve express lanes for their own content and servicesâ€”or those from big corporations that can afford the steep tollsâ€”and leave the rest of us on a winding dirt road.”
Save the Internet is comprised of a surprising array of organizations and constituencies, from the ACLU to the deeply conservative Christian Coalition, from labor unions like SEIU and the Teamsters to Internet gamer associations. The Coalition also includes progressive feminist, education, environmental and civil rights groups.
The organizing work of Save the Internet and other consumer groups have even made net neutrality an issue in the presidential campaign, with most Democrats coming out in support and most Republicans opposing any new so-called “government regulation.” Barack Obama has come out most forcefully for net neutrality, saying that it would be a top priority for his administration.
Big business opponents of net neutrality argue that Save the Internet and others are trying to “regulate” the Internet. Proponents argue that it is Comcast and other broadband giants who are attempting to regulate the Internet, and that they are trying to refashion the Internetâ€™s currently “open architecture” into a private fiefdom of fast access. According to Save the Internet, “For all their talk about ‘deregulation,’ the cable and telephone giants donÂ´t want real competition. They want special rules written in their favor.”
This new tiered system is no distant possibility. According to the Washington Post, “William L. Smith, chief technology officer for Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp., told reporters and analysts that an Internet service provider such as his firm should be able, for example, to charge Yahoo Inc. for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than that of Google Inc.” And given that so much internet traffic from across the world passes through the United States, consumers around the world would also suffer the consequences of a tiered system.
Cable and telephone companies have poured millions of dollars into efforts to lobby Congress and have even created and financed “Astroturf” organizations (fake, industry-funded grassroots groups) like Hands Off the Internet and NetCompetition.org to fight net neutrality. Netcompetition.org representative and telecom consultant Scott Cleland recently advanced the peculiar argument that net neutrality advocates are “antiproperty”: “Everybody throws the word ‘open’ around and says open is wonderful. But ‘open’ means communal. It means not owned.” Cleland did not explain why large cable and telephone companies should have exclusive control of property that has long been enjoyed by people throughout the world.
A “pay-for-speed” Internet would have a particularly negative impact on grassroots political organizations, many of which have taken advantage of the Internet to amplify their message. According to Save the Internet, “Costs will skyrocket to post and share video and audio clips, silencing bloggers and amplifying the big media companies. Political organizing could be slowed by the handful of dominant Internet providers who ask advocacy groups of candidates to pay a fee to join the ‘fast lane’.”
In related news, consumer advocates have filed complaints against Comcast before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), alleging that the broadband giant slows down or blocks certain types of content, such as peer-to-peer file sharing. Comcast, in comments filed with the FCC this past Tuesday, argues that it took reasonable action to manage network traffic, ensuring that users of file sharing programs like BitTorrent do not slow other users’ access. FCC policy offers support for net neutrality, but this will be the federal agency’s first case testing the matter. With Republican Bush-appointees controlling a majority of FCC votes, this case will be closely watched by both supporters and opponents of net neutrality.
Taken together, the proposed law and the FCC complaint indicate that the movement for net neutrality is on the offensive. But to succeed, all of us who benefit from a free internet must join in and make our voices heard.
For more information: http://savetheinternet.com/=act
- Daniel Denvir is a journalist working with ALAI.