“Net Neutrality” Is Vital to Free Speech in the Internet Age

The mass media remains, in the 21st century, one of the most powerful forces blocking social and economic progress.  It is because of the mass media that tens of millions of Americans are convinced that budget deficits are more important than the lives ruined by unemployment, or that Social Security won’t be there for them when they retire.  Or that their government’s occupation of Afghanistan, and its hundreds of military bases around the world, are protecting the “national security” of U.S. citizens.

All of these destructive myths — and many more — could be dispelled within a relatively short time if there were a free marketplace of ideas, instead of the “free press for those who own it” model currently in place.  Of course, other falsehoods would persist for much longer; ideas, once widely accepted, can have great inertia.  But during the last two decades the Internet has introduced a degree of competition in the world of mass communications, which although still quantitatively small, is nonetheless unprecedented.  An interactive process has been set in motion, whereby the Internet and the blogosphere act as a check on the mass media, sometimes breaking important news that would otherwise go unnoticed or unreported (in systems with direct censorship such as China and also in limited democracies like the United States); and sometimes influencing the journalists who produce the mass media.  This process has the potential to accelerate with the development and spread of Internet technology, for example with Internet television; and of course with advances in literacy and education.

This is rare in the history of technology, and especially in the technology of communications.  Almost all prior innovations — radio, television and motion pictures — have mostly made it easier for the few to control the many — like pilotless drone military planes.

This progressive contribution of the Internet is reliant on the principle of “net neutrality”: that Internet service providers treat all packets of data the same.  An individual blogger’s challenge to the Washington Post can be downloaded by anyone at the same speed as the content of the multi-billion dollar corporate newspaper itself.  Intelligent readers can decide for themselves who is correct.

The Federal Communications Commission has been considering what its role and rules should be for enforcing net neutrality, and in early August Google and Verizon put forth their own proposal on these issues.  These two big corporations, along with others, are likely to have a considerable influence on the FCC and Congress, and their proposal has elicited a torrent of criticism.  It exempts wireless and other “online services” from net neutrality, and has other big loopholes.

There is now a clear and present danger that the road will be paved to a fragmented Internet where service providers can determine what people will see on the Web, and carve out a “non-neutral” sector.  As Senator Al Franken from Minnesota has noted, defending net neutrality is “the First Amendment issue of our time.”

America’s great concentrations of wealth — more concentrated than at any time since the 1920s — already dominate the Internet.  But not nearly as much as they dominate the vast majority of information that Americans receive from more monopolized info-tainment/news outlets such as TV, radio and what remains of the newspaper industry.

A coalition of organizations including MoveOn.org, Color of Change, Free Press and Credo Action is calling on Americans to lend a hand and preserve this one remaining mass medium of free speech and equal rights, before it is remade in accordance with corporate needs.  We the people need the Internet as we know it in the battle of ideas; we had better fight for it.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C.  He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan.  He has written numerous research papers on economic policy, especially on Latin America and international economic policy.  He is also co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000) and president of Just Foreign Policy.  This article was first published in the Sacramento Bee on 16 September 2010 and republished by CEPR under a Creative Commons license.

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