When Barack Obama was running for president in 2007, he earned a great deal of credibility with tech-savvy voters by expressing support for net neutrality, rooted in an understanding that this issue raises essential questions about the future of open, free and democratic communications in America.
Obama got that net neutrality represented an Internet-age equivalent of the First Amendment — a guarantee of equal treatment for all content, as opposed to special rights for the powerful business and political elites to buy extra speed and higher quality of service.
Asked whether he thought the Federal Communications Commission and Congress needed to preserve the Internet as we know it, the senator from Illinois said, “The answer is ‘yes.’ I am a strong supporter of net neutrality.”
“What you’ve been seeing is some lobbying that says that the servers and the various portals through which you’re getting information over the Internet should be able to be gatekeepers and to charge different rates to different Web sites,” explained Obama, who warned that with such a change in standards “you could get much better quality from the Fox News site and you’d be getting rotten service from the mom and pop sites.”
Candidate Obama was exactly right.
Unfortunately, barely three months after President Obama again identified himself as “a strong supporter of net neutrality,” Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has rolled out a proposal that the world’s most digitally engaged newspaper, The Guardian, delicately suggests would “ax-murder net neutrality.”
According to Los Angeles Times tech writer Jim Puzzanghera, the plan “would allow Internet service providers to charge companies for faster delivery of their content.”
Wheeler claims, “There is no ‘turnaround in policy.’ ”
But, Puzzanghera concluded, “The plan appears to violate a basic principle of net neutrality that all similar content should be treated equally.”
Can the plan be stopped?
Yes. The FCC can be influenced by creators, consumers and citizen activists who understand that in this age of digital communications, a broken Internet will lead to a broken democracy. It can even be influenced by the president and members of Congress, who ought to speak up, loudly, in favor of the right approach to net neutrality.
There are two simple steps to take:
1. Recognize the need to reclassify Internet access. There is a right response to court rulings that have rejected the complex and ill-thought-out approaches that the FCC has taken with regard to net neutrality. The right response is to reclassify broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service that can be regulated in the public interest.
When the FCC’s clumsy previous attempt at establishing net neutrality protections was rejected in January by the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the court did not say that the commission lacked regulatory authority — simply that it needed a better approach.
“The court upheld the FCC’s general authority to issue rules aimed at spurring broadband deployment, and accepted the basic policy rationale for Internet neutrality as articulated by the FCC,” notes David Sohn, the general legal counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “The arguments in favor of Internet neutrality are as strong as ever, but prior FCC decisions on how to treat broadband have painted the agency into a corner. Those decisions are not set in stone, however, and the ball is now back in the FCC’s court. The FCC should reconsider its classification of broadband Internet access and re-establish its authority to enact necessary safeguards for Internet openness.”
The approach that Wheeler is now proposing continues down the wrong course, and actually veers into even more dangerous territory with its outline for a pay-to-play “fast lane” on the Internet. But this proposal can be altered or rejected by the full commission. In other words, the reclassification option can still be pursued.
2. Recognize that this is the time to signal support for net neutrality. The FCC has listened in the past when a public outcry has been raised on media ownership issues, diversity issues and Internet access issues. Wheeler is a new chairman. It’s vital to communicate to him and to the other members of the commission that Obama was right when he said that establishing “fast lanes” on the Internet “destroys one of the best things about the Internet — which is that there is this incredible equality there.”
Dozens of public interest groups, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Government Accountability Project, the PEN American Center, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting and the National Hispanic Media Coalition have urged the FCC to do the right thing.
The Save the Internet coalition has a track record of rapidly mobilizing Americans to thwart wrongheaded moves by the FCC. They’re already up and at it, with a petition urging Wheeler and the FCC to “scrap” approaches that won’t work and to “restore the principle of online nondiscrimination by reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service.” We urge our readers to sign the petition, which can be found online at www.savetheinternet.com.
It is time to use the Internet to save the Internet!