The Fight for an Open Internet

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By Robin Brown

—UPDATE Wednesday, Jan. 15, 5 p.m.

Net neutrality was shot down yesterday in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The decision on the case Verizon vs. FCC allows broadband providers like Verizon to block sites or limit broadband use to websites paying less than top dollar for fast service.

The decision is likely to affect small and local websites, as they will now be competing for bandwidth against billion-dollar corporations. Years before the Federal Communications Commision passed its Open Internet Order, the agency failed to classify ISPs as telecommunications services. This left the FCC’s authority weak to enforce of its own laws as a regulator of the Internet. Verizon seized upon this weakness and sued.

So what now? The FCC could appeal to the Supreme Court; the agency could work with Congress to establish the Internet as a telecommunications service; or the FCC could take no action, and the Internet may begin to look more like cable television. Last week, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler declared his commitment to net neutrality, perhaps signaling that the FCC will fight to defend an open Internet.

The court’s conclusion on net neutrality: “This regulation essentially provides an economic preference to a politically powerful constituency, a constituency that, as is true of typical rent seekers, wishes protection against market forces. The Commission does not have authority to grant such a favor.”

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Local media activists are working to bring the issue of net neutrality to light. Media Literacy Project staff Alanna Offield and Shana Heinricy are thinking of ways to analyze and explain this complicated but crucial issue. “The easiest way to say it is that this court case could ruin everything we love about the Internet,” Offield says. “It will be Verizon’s world and we just live in it.”

Net neutrality rules are designed to keep the internet a free and vibrant space where anyone can offer and find the information they’re looking for. The FCC issued the order in 2010 that demanded broadband providers be transparent about their practices and services; that they not block lawful content or services (even from competitors); and that they avoid “unreasonable discrimination” in conducting the flow of net traffic.

Tim Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, is an avid supporter of net neutrality. At heart, an open internet is about non-discrimination, he writes in an essay called “The Many Meanings of Open.” If one person pays to connect to the Internet at a certain standard of service, and another pays to connect with that or a greater quality of service, they can both “communicate at the same level,” he says. This means no blocking by providers and no preferential treatment of content. “The alternative is a web in which governments or large companies, or frequently a close association of the two, try to control the Internet with packets of information delivered in a way that discriminates for commercial or political reasons.”

In the lawsuit, Verizon argues its investments allow the Internet to run, so the company should be able to manage content passing through its technological property any way it wants. The company holds that the net can be faster if companies are allowed to regulate their networks, and that the FCC is violating its right to free speech by interfering with Verizon’s ability to regulate itself. The lawsuit also says the FCC “conjures a role for itself” and does not have authority in this matter.

The loss for the FCC in this case damages the agency’s ability to create and enforce open Internet rules. The FCC may take the case to the Supreme Court or request explicit authority to regulate the Internet from Congress.

Heinricy imagines the fallout of Verizon’s win: “We expect to see that large business sites will load much faster, and the loading time for small sites will be much much slower. You might not be able to find them or access them at all.” The Internet might begin feel more like network television, where a few companies control all of the content.

In fact, a few years ago, Comcast merged with NBC. If net neutrality disappears, Comcast could block NBC’s competitors, and Comcast customers would have access to only some content online. “We can expect pretty quickly to see major changes depending on your service provider,” Offield says.

Or, perhaps large pharmaceutical companies will pay for a provider to block info on alternative medicine, Heinricy speculates. Political activism could be blocked, Offield adds, if a network or other paying company doesn’t agree with messages being sent. “Look at other governments who actively block content on the Internet,” she says. “What content does China block? They block dissent.”

Perhaps the broadest impact may be a decline in the abundance of information and media the Internet has to offer. It’s worth noting that most coverage of net neutrality and this court case is found online.

During the 2012 Internet protest, thousands of websites participated in a blackout of their own content to make net users aware of structural threats to the Internet created by the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Several Internet giants including Google and Wikipedia jumped on the bandwagon in reaction to legislation that would have limited net freedoms and altered the dynamic structure of the Internet. Both bills were dropped after such widespread opposition.

This year, few, if any, large companies have stood up in protest of Verizon’s attempt to dismantle net neutrality. “Where are these big sites now?” wonders Offield, when an equal if not greater threat has emerged. “Why aren’t they getting on board with this?” Google, for instance, has long been a supporter of net neutrality but has lately come under fire for hypocrisy on the issue: The company says net neutrality rules shouldn’t interfere with its right to prevent Google Fiber customers from attaching servers to its network.

Tim Berners-Lee intentionally took no patent on the world wide web. If he had, the Internet could be a series of small networks instead of a universally connected one. Search engines might not exist, and innovation would be limited. “Today, the battle is building,” he writes. “The rights of individual people on the web are being attacked, and at the moment only a few people really understand and realize what is going on.”

Offield and Heinricy say they would like to focus more on the creation of online media instead of battling to maintain the structure of an open Internet year after year. Net neutrality, like the First Amendment, is a foundation for free speech to flourish, Offield says: “Think about what you love about the Internet and imagine that not existing anymore.”

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