The End of the Internet as We Know It?

Megan Tady

Tomor­row morn­ing, the country’s five fed­er­al com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­mis­sion­ers will be cast­ing votes that could dra­mat­i­cal­ly alter the Internet.

If the FCC passes a watered-down version of Net Neutrality this week, then we'll see an end to independence from corporate gatekeepers.

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, Ama​zon​.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.

Megan Tady is a blog­ger and video pro­duc­er for Free Press, the nation­al non­prof­it media reform orga­ni­za­tion. She writes a month­ly InThe​se​Times​.com col­umn on media issues. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @MegTady.
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