In May, HBO comedian John Oliver opened his segment on net neutrality by saying, “The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” He then delivered an incisive 13-minute monologue that was anything but boring, drawing more than 7 million views on YouTube. Indeed, as Oliver demonstrated so effectively, while net neutrality may seem like a dull subject, protecting it is essential to not only the future of the Internet, but also the future of our democracy.
Net neutrality is, simply put, the fundamental principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. There are very few level playing fields in American life, but in a nation plagued by inequality, the Internet has remained open, free and fair — a powerful equalizing force that has allowed good ideas to flourish whether they came from a corporate board room or a college dorm room. This equality of opportunity is at the core of net neutrality. And it is under relentless attack by major telecommunications companies seeking yet another advantage to tighten their grip on the market.
This year, for example, Verizon challenged the regulations governing net neutrality in court — and won. In response, the FCC proposed an approach that would allow Internet service providers such as Comcast to charge Web sites a fee to deliver their content at higher speeds. The new rules would essentially create a two-tiered Internet — a “fast lane” for the rich, and a slow lane for everyone else.
The importance of preserving net neutrality should be obvious. A tiered Internet will be great for the profits of telecommunications companies, but terrible for entrepreneurs, stifling the kind of innovation that can build massive followings before ever leaving the garage. Not only will big corporations gain an advantage, but also a small handful of them will have the ability to actively interfere with their competition: An Internet provider that offers its own phone service could block access to Skype, for example, or a cable company could disrupt Netflix’s streaming service. Worse yet, sanctioning the creation of “fast lanes” could lead to online discrimination, with the providers choking off controversial views to protect their financial or political interests.
Net neutrality is also essential to maintaining a genuinely open marketplace of ideas. As the progressive advocacy group Color of Change explains: “Our communities rely on the Internet to speak without a corporate filter, and to be able to organize and hold public officials and corporations accountable. But if these companies succeed, a few major corporations would control which voices are heard most easily, and it would be much harder for grassroots groups, individuals, and small businesses to compete with large corporations and well-funded special interests.”
President Obama has taken a very encouraging step toward keeping the Internet open and free. In a statement last month, he called on the FCC to adopt “the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality,” describing an open Internet as “one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known.” Under the president’s proposal, the FCC would reclassify the Internet as a public utility, allowing it to be regulated like telephone service. “In plain English,” Obama said, “I’m asking them to recognize that for most Americans, the Internet has become an essential part of everyday communication and everyday life.”
Indeed, the president is not the only one to see the Internet as fundamental to everyday life. Former FCC commissioner Michael Copps has argued that net neutrality is a civil rights issue. “Increasingly, people understand that the Internet is where we go to find jobs, pursue our education, care for our health, manage our finances, conserve energy, interact socially and — importantly — conduct our civic dialogue,” writes Copps. “All of which is to say that the Internet is central to our lives and our future. Anyone not having these opportunities is going to be consigned to second-class citizenship.” Likewise, Harvard law professor Susan Crawford has called for a “public option” for the Internet, citing the digital divide between socioeconomic classes and noting that the United States lags behind much of the world in high-speed Internet access.
Obama’s announcement sparked a predictable backlash from Republicans in Congress, who largely oppose even the most diluted attempts by the FCC to regulate the Internet. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) disparaged net neutrality as “Obamacare for the Internet,” a description that is, perhaps, even more absurd than he is. Standing in opposition to net neutrality is tantamount to standing against innovation, against small business, against private-sector job creation and against competition — all of the things that the Republican Party claims to stand for.
It also puts the party on the opposite side of the overwhelming majority of the public. According to a recent poll, 81 percent of Americans, including 85 percent of Republicans, oppose “allowing Internet service providers to charge some websites or streaming video services extra for faster speeds.” Nevertheless, Republicans appear poised to continue battling net neutrality in the next Congress, as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has pledged that “Republicans will continue our efforts to stop this misguided scheme to regulate the Internet.”
The fight for net neutrality started long ago, the result of a people-powered movement that has spent years fighting for an open and free Internet. As Obama acknowledged in his statement, for example, the FCC’s plan to allow “fast lanes” received almost 4 million public comments, the most in the agency’s history. And today, it seems possible, if not likely, that the public interest will prevail over special interests. But the forces mobilizing against net neutrality have no intention of stepping down from a fight. If the American people are serious about keeping the Internet open and free, the movement that has gotten us this far must continue to demand true net neutrality without delay.