Net Neutrality: What Now?

We think of social justice and equality when it comes to access to a variety of services, such as healthcare, education and housing. But, we might not think about its relation to accessing online information. In the panel at SXSW, “Net Neutrality, What Now?,” Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of Personal Democracy Media and Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, explored the issue of Internet freedom and its implications for nonprofits and citizens alike.

The Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) 2010 Open Internet rules were a set of regulations created to support the equal treatment of data on the Internet, or net neutrality. Recent court rulings challenging the FCC’s rules and the pending Comcast/Time Warner merger have re-ignited the issue of net neutrality and the role of government in regulating internet service providers and telecom companies.

Without regulations in place, large telecom and Internet services companies have the ability to selectively slow down or block services. As Rasiej and Aaron explain, this has serious ramifications for social justice, as well as economic development, when money or other factors can dictate speed and/or freedom of access. But there’s a need for greater public understanding and involvement.

“We’re at a moment where we have to not look at net neutrality as a technical problem, but as an organizing problem about the future of the Internet,” said Rasiej. “Not enough Congress members understand the Internet and individuals aren’t engaged in the issues.”

Aaron points out one of the major challenges in the fight for net neutrality is the “revolving door,” or individuals changing roles from one of regulator to one of working for a regulated entity. Aaron gives the example of Michael Powell, former chair of the FCC, who pushed for less regulation of cable companies during his tenure at the FCC, and is now president and CEO of NCTA, the top cable industry lobbying organization.

The fight for regarding Internet policies faces an incredible lobbying effort by companies with an interest in deregulation. There’s often little political will for politicians who support net neutrality to take action in the face of strong lobbying money. Rasiej and Aaron point to Google as a company that adheres to a degree to open Internet policies, but Google is under such strong market pressures to satisfy regulators and stakeholders that the firm doesn’t always stick to the open Internet tenant. Nonprofits have a lot to lose in fighting for net neutrality because their efforts can potentially be shimmied for fear of losing financial support from for-profit constituents. There’s a lobby that exists for net neutrality, but it isn’t strong enough financially to match corporate lobbying money.

Make no mistake that public has the power to bring about change. The recent outrage over government surveillance has led companies to make changes in response to public outcry.

With a year to stop the Comcast/Time Warner merger, Aaron and Rasiej feel there’s a major opportunity here to lobby and organize a new group of supporters. “There’s huge potential for net neutrality among young people and activists fighting mass surveillance”, says Aaron. “A major army can be organized.” Marketing and outreach to this new group of activists is a major push of the Internet movement in the coming months. Broad public awareness can help us think about how and why we might organize ourselves to fight to bring data equality to all.