The federal appeals court decision to allow telecom companies to broker deals for faster Internet speeds has major consequences for political freedom in the United States.
The FCC’s 2010 “net neutrality” rules were an attempt to guarantee equal access for all Internet traffic, but yesterday the court struck them down, and now websites might have to pay ISPs for the luxury of faster speeds and service.
Sarah Morris, senior policy counsel for the think tank Open Technology Institute, explains the situation this way:
“The FCC’s Open Internet Rules represented an important — if imperfect — regulatory intervention to preserve the ability of broadband consumers to access the content of their choosing. Without these rules, consumers are at the mercy of their providers and the business arrangements those providers have already said they would implement absent the rules – business arrangements that could severely limit access to certain content online.”
The real danger is that the loss of net neutrality means “AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast will be able to deliver some sites and services more quickly and reliably than others for any reason. Whim. Envy. Ignorance. Competition. Vengeance. Whatever. Or, no reason at all,” said Attorney Marvin Ammori in the LA Times.
Let’s say you want to read the latest news briefs from a controversial website, but maybe someone on Verizon’s board of directors does not support left-leaning politics. Verizon might ostensibly be able to influence company policy by preventing access to said site, or by slowing down access speed to such a crawl that readers give up.
This is not far-fetched: in 2007 Verizon refused to transmit NARAL Pro-Choice America’s text message alerts, so it’s possible such a scenario could play out online.
Further, there is a precedent in other forms of communication and information dispersal. In the 2002 New Hampshire state election, Republican operatives prevented voters from getting rides to polling places by hiring a firm to jam the phone lines.
The same principle is relevant here: without net neutrality guaranteeing equal access, not only will smaller providers be shut out because they can’t afford the same special fees that big providers will use to run the Internet their way, but the average citizen may be shut out of information that does not correspond with corporate desires.
This loss of net neutrality may now provide yet another way for big business to influence political elections. It’s no big secret that private corporations like to donate money to political campaigns; in the 2012 presidential election, AT&T donated three times the amount of average citizens to the campaigns of both parties’ candidates.
If these political affiliations are then translated into concerted efforts to drive Internet traffic to specific candidates’ sites, or to slow traffic to opponents’ sites, the problem of access becomes de facto censorship.
The loss of net neutrality has the potential to create censorship, not through laws banning certain sites or content from the Internet, but through denial of access. Without equal access to information, we risk much more than the financial well-being of some private companies, which is what most critics have focused on when discussing this new legal decision.
Sure, it’s about money. But it’s also about our freedom of information, without which we risk our very democracy. That’s definitely too high a price to pay.