On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission cast a vote that could reshape the future of the Internet. They decided to proceed with a proposal that if implemented would let Internet service providers charge content companies for priority treatment, relegating other content to a slower tier of service.
At stake is Net Neutrality -- the fundamental principle that ensures that when you go online you can read, watch or download whatever you want without your phone or cable company deciding which sites will work the fastest (or not at all).
Net Neutrality is a big part of what has made the Internet an unrivaled space for free speech and economic innovation. We want to keep it that way.
Unfortunately, the biggest Internet service providers have a different vision for the Internet. Companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon hate Net Neutrality. They want to pick and choose what content you can watch based on who pays them the most. They want to be gatekeepers collecting tolls before the best new ideas and apps can reach you. [Editor's note: msnbc.com is owned by Comcast.]
Until recently, it looked like these companies and their armadas of lobbyists were winning. Numerous press reports revealed the FCC’s latest “open Internet rules” would condone a pay-for-prioritization Internet, where service providers could charge extra fees for preferential treatment. That is the opposite of Net Neutrality.
This change would undermine the Internet’s open architecture, splitting the network into fast lanes for powerful companies and slow lanes for the rest of us. The Internet was never meant to be this way. By design, the network embraced openness and decentralization; it spurned gatekeepers and amplified the voices of the many.
Anyone with something interesting to say could compete with The New York Times. An artist or musician with a video camera could reach an audience of millions. Dreamers in garages and dorm rooms could conceive multibillion-dollar companies. That’s the beauty of the free and open Internet.
That’s why FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal -- which the agency is expected to vote on Thursday -- has sparked such an uproar. Hundreds of Internet companies, venture capitalists, artists and public-interest groups have all written to Wheeler urging him to abandon the proposal and protect Net Neutrality.
More than 3 million people have signed petitions or sent letters to the FCC, and the phones there have been ringing so much that staff have stopped answering them. Activists have set up an encampment outside the FCC’s office. They have been there night and day for a week, were joined by hundreds more on Thursday morning as part of a Rally to Save the Internet that occurred outside the FCC.
This unprecedented outcry is getting attention. Last week, 11 senators sent a letter to the FCC blasting the pay-to-play plan. Even two fellow FCC commissioners have expressed serious doubts about the chairman’s proposal. And press reports indicate the agency had furiously rewritten its plan. But so far the changes seem mostly rhetorical.
The FCC simply can’t interfere with blocking and discrimination if it sticks with its current approach.
But there is a better way: Wheeler can move to reclassify broadband under the law, restore the legal authority squandered by previous administrations, and craft rules against blocking and discrimination that will stand up in court. That’s what real Net Neutrality looks like.
For Chairman Wheeler the choice is simple: Either side with the phone and cable lobby and set in motion the end of an open network, or stand with millions and millions of Internet users everywhere. He can either abandon President Obama’s pledge to “take a back seat to no one” on Net Neutrality, or get in the driver’s seat.
Right now, the FCC seems more afraid of the lobbying might of a few giant cable and phone companies than it is of the rest of us. But momentum is on our side. Thursday’s vote (and protest) was just the start of a months-long fight to save the Internet. Over the summer, the FCC will accept comments from people who care about the future of communications.
People in Washington don’t lead -- they follow. Whether the issue is climate change, marriage equality or Internet freedom, we must show those in power that they have much more to lose than gain by ignoring the people.
If you love the free and open Internet, and you’re tired of being ignored, there’s never been a more important moment to speak up.
Craig Aaron is CEO and president of Free Press, and Tim Karr is senior director of strategy.