Imagine if you were talking on the phone and Verizon or ATT decided they didn't like where your conversation was going. You'd be in the middle of a sentence and suddenly disconnected. Or maybe they didn't like the person you were talking to, or the subject. You'd be unable to connect or your conversation would become so slow and poor quality you'd give up and call someone else. Or maybe you lived in an area of the country where they didn't want to give you telephone service. So you'd be unable to call at all. The telecom companies would justify all this by explaining that the fiber optic lines or wireless frequencies were simply their private property. They had a right, they'd say, to do whatever they wanted with them.
They can't do this because telephone service has long been held to common access standards. The Internet has similarly developed and flourished as a commons open to everyone, through what we've come to call Net Neutrality. But Bush's FCC ruled that all our new communications technologies were in a different category, effectively the property of their physical carriers. In the wake of this decision Verizon refused to distribute a text message alert from NARAL Pro Choice America and AT&T muted singer Eddie Vedder's criticism of President Bush during a live Pearl Jam webcast. The telecom companies are also pushing to be able to sell the right for websites or applications whose owners wanted them to load faster, while relegating other sites to second-class service. Such a shift would devastate nonprofits, small businesses, and all kinds of political advocacy groups, which couldn't afford the rates that the most lucrative sites could pay.
As a candidate Obama spoke out strongly for reversing this policy, promising to "take a back seat to no one on Net Neutrality." His FCC appointees were at first strongly supportive of extending the protections of equal access to online technologies (which would make moot a federal court decision based on the Bush-era rulings). But now, following massive telecom company lobbying, they're seriously wavering. Google is now exploring a private deal with Verizon, where Google would pay for YouTube content to get higher priority delivery to consumers, shifting them from Net Neutrality advocate to de facto opponent. With a final FCC ruling coming any day now, an equal-access internet is now in serious jeopardy.
In the Soviet Union, cultural commissars determined who would see what information and in what context. In the US, it's corporations, and their choke-hold is about to get tighter unless we speak out and act. The fight to keep Net Neutrality has produced some important victories as when MoveOn and the Christian Coalition joined in an unlikely partnership to help block Congress from destroying Net Neutrality four years ago. FreePress.net, who's led on this issue all along, is now organizing now to help people speak out before final FCC decision. But we'd better act while we still have a chance if we don't want to be cut off in midstream from equitable access to all the new media whose promise and power we've come to take for granted.
Paul Loeb is the author of "Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times," recently published in a wholly updated new edition after 100,000 copies and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear," the History Channel and American Book Association's #3 political book of 2004. For more information or to receive Loeb's articles directly, see www.paulloeb.org. To sign up on Facebook visit Facebook.com/PaulLoebBooks