The Most Important Free Speech Issue of Our Time
by Al Franken
As a source of innovation, an engine of our economy, and a forum for our political discourse, the Internet can only work if it's a truly level playing field. Small businesses should have the same ability to reach customers as powerful corporations. A blogger should have the same ability to find an audience as a media conglomerate.
This principle is called "net neutrality" -- and it's under attack. Internet service giants like Comcast and Verizon want to offer premium and privileged access to the Internet for corporations who can afford to pay for it.
The good news is that the Federal Communications Commission has the power to issue regulations that protect net neutrality. The bad news is that draft regulations written by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski don't do that at all. They're worse than nothing.
That's why Tuesday is such an important day. The FCC will be meeting to discuss those regulations, and we must make sure that its members understand that allowing corporations to control the Internet is simply unacceptable.
Although Chairman Genachowski's draft Order has not been made public, early reports make clear that it falls far short of protecting net neutrality.
For many Americans -- particularly those who live in rural areas -- the future of the Internet lies in mobile services. But the draft Order would effectively permit Internet providers to block lawful content, applications, and devices on mobile Internet connections.
Mobile networks like AT&T and Verizon Wireless would be able to shut off your access to content or applications for any reason. For instance, Verizon could prevent you from accessing Google Maps on your phone, forcing you to use their own mapping program, Verizon Navigator, even if it costs money to use and isn't nearly as good. Or a mobile provider with a political agenda could prevent you from downloading an app that connects you with the Obama campaign (or, for that matter, a Tea Party group in your area).
It gets worse. The FCC has never before explicitly allowed discrimination on the Internet -- but the draft Order takes a step backwards, merely stating that so-called "paid prioritization" (the creation of a "fast lane" for big corporations who can afford to pay for it) is cause for concern.
It sure is -- but that's exactly why the FCC should ban it. Instead, the draft Order would have the effect of actually relaxing restrictions on this kind of discrimination.
What's more, even the protections that are established in the draft Order would be weak because it defines "broadband Internet access service" too narrowly, making it easy for powerful corporations to get around the rules.
Here's what's most troubling of all. Chairman Genachowski and President Obama -- who nominated him -- have argued convincingly that they support net neutrality.
But grassroots supporters of net neutrality are beginning to wonder if we've been had. Instead of proposing regulations that would truly protect net neutrality, reports indicate that Chairman Genachowski has been calling the CEOs of major Internet corporations seeking their public endorsement of this draft proposal, which would destroy it.
No chairman should be soliciting sign-off from the corporations that his agency is supposed to regulate -- and no true advocate of a free and open Internet should be seeking the permission of large media conglomerates before issuing new rules.
After all, just look at Comcast -- this Internet monolith has reportedly imposed a new, recurring fee on Level 3 Communications, the company slated to be the primary online delivery provider for Netflix. That's the same Netflix that represents Comcast's biggest competition in video services.
Imagine if Comcast customers couldn't watch Netflix, but were limited only to Comcast's Video On Demand service. Imagine if a cable news network could get its website to load faster on your computer than your favorite local political blog. Imagine if big corporations with their own agenda could decide who wins or loses online. The Internet as we know it would cease to exist.
That's why net neutrality is the most important free speech issue of our time. And that's why, this Tuesday, when the FCC meets to discuss this badly flawed proposal, I'll be watching. If they approve it as is, I'll be outraged. And you should be, too.