Tomorrow morning, the country’s five federal communications commissioners will be casting votes that could dramatically alter the Internet.
The commissioners are voting on a troubling Net Neutrality proposal released earlier this month by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. While Genachowski’s proposal has yet to be made public, it reportedly would not offer the same protections to wireless Internet users as it would to those using wired connections. And it would open the door to “paid prioritization,” which could allow phone and cable companies to create toll roads favoring the traffic of a select few companies that can pay by slowing down everyone else. (This has been widely reported and confirmed by FCC sources.)
Genachowski’s proposal abandons his prior commitment to make new rules under Title II of the Communications Act, instead pursuing rules under the more legally precarious Title I. That approach not only puts Net Neutrality at risk of being tossed out in court, but it raises serious questions about how the FCC plans to achieve the more ambitious goals of the National Broadband Plan.
Net Neutrality is the principle that prohibits Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and AT&T from blocking, degrading or discriminating against lawful online content. There is currently no hard and fast rule, however, that forces ISPs to comply with Net Neutrality, and public interest and advocacy organizations – including Free Press, where I work – have long been pushing for strong Internet traffic protections. ISPs have already made attempts at controlling the Internet – in 2007, Comcast was caught blocking legal peer-to-peer traffic on a file-sharing site.
President Barack Obama rode into office as the “Internet president” promising to “take a back seat to no one on Net Neutrality.” But Genachowski, who the president appointed as chairman of the FCC, has not followed through with these promises and is now poised to pass watered-down Net Neutrality rules with a weak legal basis.
This is outrageous, given the broad public support for an open Internet allowing for unbridled freedom of expression and innovation. The public outcry culminated last week in a hand-delivered petition drop of more than 2 million signatures for real Net Neutrality.
At the same time, a group of the most influential Net Neutrality advocates and innovative online businesses told the FCC that they would not support weak Net Neutrality rules. These organizations include Dish Network, Consumers Union, Netflix, Public Knowledge, Free Press, Amazon.com, Skype, the New America Foundation, Writers Guild West and Media Access Project.
On Friday, a group of lawmakers sent a letter to the FCC saying that Genachowski’s proposal needs to be strengthened to get their full support. The signers include Reps. Ed Markey (D‑Mass.), John Lewis (D‑Ga.), Raul Grijalva (D‑Ariz.), Mike Doyle (D‑Penn.) and Anna Eshoo (D‑Calif.). And Sen. Al Franken (D‑Minn.) wrote the FCC earlier last week arguing that weak rules would give network operators the green light to abandon Net Neutrality protections and undermine the Internet’s open architecture.
The open platform of the Internet has given the public unprecedented freedom for expression, creativity, innovation, connection and social activism. There may never be another communications platform like it.
If the FCC passes a watered-down version of Net Neutrality, then we’ll see an end to this independence from corporate gatekeepers. Fake Net Neutrality will protect the interests of corporations, but it won’t do us justice.
Real Net Neutrality means there is one Internet with one set of rules, whether you get online at home or using a mobile phone; it means no special toll roads or fast lanes reserved for a few powerful corporations; it means no giant loopholes that would undermine the Internet’s level playing field.
Genachowski’s proposal requires a majority (three votes) to pass, but there’s still time left to fix the rules. Will the FCC’s commissioners cast their votes in support of real Net Neutrality, or will they capitulate to the phone and cable companies by signing off on a rule that comes up shockingly short? We’ll know in a matter of hours, and their decision will affect us for generations.