Thursday, April 8, 2010

Net Neutrality and Freedom of the Press

Much of the discussion of the recent net neutrality decision in the courts seems content to view the issue as something related to illegally copied movies. But net neutrality is not about that. It’s about preserving open communication on the Internet. And it is fundamentally about freedom of the press.

The importance of freedom of the press in a functioning democracy has been known for a long time. It was noted by the legislative group that drafted the U.S. constitution, and has long been a celebrated part of the American political process. But in an age when a significant number of people get their news over the Internet, how much freedom of the press is there really when any Internet access provider has the legal right to cut off any news source it chooses?

According to the court’s logic, there is no law that forces Comcast, or any other Internet service provider, to let you access, for example, the New York Times. If Comcast decides New York Times readers are using “too much” bandwidth, with no legal standard for how they can make that decision, they can limit the number of users who can access the New York Times web site at any one time. According to the court, there is no law that says they can’t do this. If they want to influence the census results, they can make the census web site crash in some states while allowing open access to it from other states. If they are unhappy with the course of the political discourse surrounding issues of corporate governance that affect their parent companies, they can delete email messages that contain points of view that are unfavorable to their interests.

I hope Internet providers will not start doing these things on a large scale — but according to the court, there is no law that prevents them from doing these things and more. And this is not just a hypothetical concern. AOL, back when it was still a significant player in Internet access, decided to cut off the email sent by certain political action committees that were taking a position that AOL thought went against the interests of its parent company at the time, Time Warner. There are dozens of other known actions by U.S. Internet providers against political communication, along with certainly others that have not come to light, and this is a pattern that is well-known in other countries.

There are arguments to be made on both sides of the net neutrality debate. However, there at least have to be enough rules to ensure that the political process can carry on without being distorted by the corporate interests that own the access points on the Internet. The courts have ruled that, the way things stand now, federal regulators do not have the authority to set these rules. Next, Congress must act to give the Federal Communications Commission the authority to keep the Internet working — to keep the country’s politics from being taken over by the powerful corporations that currently can control what people can and cannot see on the Internet.