Potential Gutting Of Net Neutrality Hurts Nonprofits

May 15, 2014       Patrick Sullivan and Zach Halper      

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved by a three-to-two vote chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal to allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to charge websites for faster service, a concept known as paid priority or a so-called Internet fast lane. Nonprofits around the net reacted with outrage and dismay.

Today’s ruling is not final, but rather opens a four-month public comment period, beginning immediately. The FCC will then vote on a new proposal based on those comments. Individuals can email comments to openinternet@fcc.gov. As of presstime, the proposal itself has not been released.

According to an FCC statement, the proposal also includes rules on:

  • Transparency: Telling consumers how ISPs manage Internet traffic;
  • Censorship: Allowing all legal websites and not slowing any website down; and,
  • Complaints: A “multi-faceted process to promptly resolve and head off disputes, including an ombudsperson to act as a watchdog on behalf of consumers and start-ups and small businesses.”

“Creating a fast lane on the web serving a few commercial interests would fundamentally hurt nonprofits by inhibiting the open innovation, reversing the democratized access to information, and creating real barriers for engaging communities and supporters,” said Amy Sample Ward, CEO of NTEN (Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network) in Portland, Ore. “An open Web has meant nonprofits of all sizes have had the opportunity to use the same tools and reach people all over the world, regardless of their organizational size or budget. This needs to continue.”

Michael Copps, special adviser to Washington, D.C., nonprofit Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, said via a statement, “This is an alarming day for anyone who treasures a free and open Internet – which should be all of us. The FCC could have moved decisively to guarantee that the Internet remains an open platform for free expression and the exchange of democracy-sustaining communications. Instead, the Commission again left broadband users without the protections they deserve. Let’s be clear. Any proposal to allow fast lanes for the few is emphatically not net neutrality.”

Sample Ward told nonprofit sector leaders to demand the FCC preserve net neutrality by sending an email through the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF) Dear FCC initiative, dearfcc.org. “I strongly encourage individuals to add their voices to the public response to the FCC, and suggest nonprofit staff tell the story not only of their personal story but also the importance of an open Internet for their mission and programs, and for their communities,” said Sample Ward.

April Glaser, a staff activist at EFF, said they are still waiting for the full proposal before presenting their analysis of the rule but she stressed that any implementation of paid priority would be “detrimental” for organizations that had smaller budgets, and a big blow for those who rely on the Internet for essential information. Despite her concerns, she did express optimism that the FCC announced they would be pushing for greater ISP transparency.

“We know that the public outcry is having an impact,” said Glaser. “Just in the past week, they’ve begun to ask questions they weren’t asking previously – about whether they should consider banning fast lanes.”

Berin Szoka and Geoffrey Manne, CEO and senior fellow, respectively, at the Washington, D.C.-based TechFreedom, wrote in a statement that the FCC is overstepping its authority, and that the proposed rules should be left to legislators to decide.

“(T)he Commission is trying to do what must ultimately be done by Congress: effectively rewrite the 1996 Telecommunications Act, whose siloed approach was based on the assumptions of the pre-Internet era,” wrote Szoka and Manne in the statement. “The sooner the FCC calls on Congress to update the Act, the better. A political consensus on this issue is possible — just not at the FCC, where policy questions are inevitably intertwined with the intractable problem of the FCC’s authority in a world that has changed completely since 1996.”

The nonprofit sector will be unable to compete with for-profit websites if paid priority is implemented, said Karen Coppock, vice president of strategy and impact at TechSoup Global in San Francisco, Calif. “Net neutrality principles support the free flow of resources between mission-driven organizations in the social sector through the critical infrastructure of the Internet,” she said. “A ‘fast lane’ means there is also a ‘slow lane,’ and social sector organizations will inevitably be consigned there, with consequences for their mission achievement and with negative impact on the millions who depend on social sector organizations as a lifeline and for other vital services.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., paved the way for an Internet fast lane in January when it ruled against the FCC and said websites could make deals with ISPs for faster service. The FCC shifted its stance on the fast lane in April when Wheeler announced the notice of proposed rule making.