The fight to preserve a free and open Internet has been raging for years, but now it’s crunch time.
The big telecom companies have just won a major round in their fight to privatize the Web, and it’s now up to the Federal Communications Commission to reverse the missteps it has made over the past decade, overcome doubts about its political mettle and restore equal access to what was once a thoroughly democratic communications platform, open to all.
Put bluntly: As of now, Net neutrality is dead.
Conceptually, Net neutrality requires that providers treat the Internet as a public utility—and can't subject users to preferential pricing or access schemes based on the service or platform of subscribers.
But on Tuesday, a federal appeals court in Washington struck down the FCC’s Open Internet Order, the regulatory framework enshrining at least the principle of open access, and said the FCC lacked the authority to enforce the order as it was written. It was a big victory for plaintiff Verizon and, by extension, for all telecommunications companies eager to turn the Internet into a mirror image of cable TV: full of restrictions, limits on consumer choice and toll stations designed to maximize their profits at our expense. And it was a loss for their customers.
The good news is that it can still be revived.
The court clearly recognized the FCC’s authority to regulate the business practices of Internet service providers. And the FCC now has an opportunity both to rewrite its regulations and correct the glaring loophole related to mobile in the order, which dates back to 2010, so that the creeping privatization of the Internet we’ve experienced with the rise of smartphones is reversed.
This is particularly important for black and brown Americans, whose adoption of smartphone use has outpaced that of the general population. Our communities rely on the Internet to speak without a corporate filter, to access information and connect to the world and to be able to organize and hold public officials and corporations accountable.
Without the Net neutrality protections we had a week ago, the public is now at the mercy of the massive corporate Internet service and Web content providers, who are free to collude to prioritize certain websites, services and applications above others—either by blocking or slowing down access to the competition, or by charging customers more to regain access.
This practice has already started, due to the way the Open Internet Order has for too long arbitrarily treated the mobile Web as distinct from fixed-line access. There is no defensible technology or policy rationale for regulating the Internet differently depending on the device one uses to access it, and now that smartphones have become near-ubiquitous, the insidious effect of the FCC’s giveaway to wireless companies has become apparent to their tens of millions of subscribers.
And with that in mind, last week the civil rights organization I lead, ColorOfChange.org, spoke directly with the FCC’s new chair, Tom Wheeler, and agency staff at a rare town-hall meeting in Oakland, Calif., where community members and activists gathered to share their stories of how FCC policymaking directly impacts their lives. I told Chairman Wheeler that maintaining access to the free and open Internet is critical to reaching our 900,000 members and amplifying their voices on the issues most impacting black and brown families and communities. I told him that protecting the open Internet is not just a regulatory issue but also a civil rights issue: Many times in the past, marginalized and exploited communities such as those we represent have looked to independent agencies like the FCC to defend our fundamental rights.
Chairman Wheeler will be under pressure from the telecom and cable giants to fulfill at least part of their agenda. But his agency is there to serve the public interest, not the corporate bottom line, so it is vital that we, the public, remind him of that fact and push him to be a champion for the people he represents.
At another stop on his California listening tour, Wheeler said that an open Internet is essential to the continuing drive for “innovation without permission”—that’s right. But the agency has a lot of work ahead to realize this vision, and it is vital that we hold his feet to the fire.
The behavior of Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and the other major corporations seeking to control what we see and do online is nothing less than a threat to our democracy. We need to make our voices heard as loudly as possible, or risk losing the most powerful arena there is for raising those voices in the first place.
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Rashad Robinson is executive director of ColorOfChange.org, the nation's largest online civil rights organization. Follow ColorOfChange.org on Twitter.