Over and again, it seems that America is fighting for the identity of its very soul on every issue in public debate today. Now, this assertion can either stem from an overzealous, hyperbolic, and sensational media or it can come from the growing pains of an 18th century model striving to fit into a 21st century reality—or more likely a little touch of both. All sensationalism aside, the battle for the internet that has been waged in public discourse to sway the FCC one way or another was, and still is, the paramount Free Speech issue of the times and Net Neutrality is the name of the game.
And it appears that Free Speech has won the day.
The battle for Net Neutrality was waged over the issue of how the internet is classified—is it a utility or not? Yesterday it was decided in this latest round of political pugilism. With the FCC voting to reclassify the internet as a utility, many who were lobbying, petitioning, and protesting the throttling and over-monetization of internet access can let loose a strong sigh of relief. Access and availability as well as visibility on the internet appear to be safe…for now. While we would do well to celebrate the failure of endlessly resourced multimedia communications corporations like Comcast it will do us well to remember that vigilance is good stewardship and this classification is not set in stone.
Just because the FCC has decided that the internet is a utility today, with its current leadership, doesn’t mean the future won’t bring this topic to the public forefront again. Opponents to this ruling are already hailing it as the death of Free Speech and the first step towards government censorship of the internet—as opposed to the corporate censorship alleged by the left.
The fact of the matter is that the Wild West days of the internet have long since sunsetted, and it already is censored by the government—after all it doesn’t take much to get a notice on your Google search citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. How short are our memories of Napster lawsuits? How long has law enforcement been utilizing chatrooms, message boards, and more recently social media to ensnare criminals and monitor terrorist chatter and so forth. This isn’t a statement in support of piracy and copyright infringement or illicit activities at large, but it does serve to illustrate government regulation of the internet already. To a large degree, prudence dictates that it should be. The question is to what degree and which criteria should content be monitored, censored, banned, and/or tracked?
With classification as a utility, the internet is protected from fastlanes and throttling—essentially good protections in terms of proliferation of information across the blogosphere and economically for small businesses. It protects start ups, multiple voices, and it actually is a safety feature of diverse capitalist ventures—despite what regionally monopolistic, non-competitive communications companies are asserting. It is important that we label companies like Verizon and Comcast as the monopolies they are, which conservatives like Marc Levin are loathe to do. They are monopolies by collusion, choosing not to compete in meaningful ways rather than the traditional sense of single-company ownership of a market. This collusion has given them a defacto lobby status—a rising tide of fees raising all yachts.
As a ultility, the internet is recognized as a necessity and a fact of life for many if not most Americans. Correspondence, communication, work, banking, and the flow of news and information all flow from the internet. For many, their access to personal information and healthcare do as well. For others yet, their livelihoods are tied to strong internet access. This reclassification is a great victory for equity, but it is not indelible.
We must remain ever vigilant in protecting the freedom of the internet from bottom dollar control—and indeed we must remain strong stewards of the First Amendment from entities corporate, Federal, or governmental in nature. Our freedom to express, share, and gather is embodied wholly in the internet today and is an extension of all our freedoms to assemble, migrated from 18th century notions to 21st century practice. Hashtags are now picket signs, memes are graffiti, groups and mailing lists are organizations, newsfeeds are watercoolers, blogs are newpapers—the internet is free speech and we can’t allow anyone to tread on it. Fighting against any tyrannical limits—by either decree or debit—of our ability to congregate and express ourselves is our duty as Americans. Our most recent foe was corporations and lobbies…if it should turn to be our government we should rise in equal or greater fervor.
If we want to keep a free net neutral internet we will do well to remember vigilance is stewardship; the battle is won but the war is far from over.