House Expected to Cast Crucial Vote on the Future of the Internet This Week

As early as June 6, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on an amendment to telecommunications legislation that would protect our access to an open Internet. The amendment would ensure that all companies providing us with access to the Internet respect “net neutrality” – our ability as citizens and consumers to access any information on the Internet and use any applications we choose, without restrictions or limitations imposed by our Internet service provider. When this amendment comes up for a vote, every Member’s vote will count and every Member should be held accountable.

“Net neutrality” may sound obscure and wonky. But it is crucial if the Internet is to remain a forum for us to talk to one another, to access web sites for information, to read, write and comment on blogs, to engage in political forums, or to donate money and learn about political candidates. There is a real risk that telephone and cable companies, which provide access to the Internet for more than 95 percent of U.S. consumers who go online, will use their market power to transform the Internet into largely a vehicle for selling us things – entertainment, games and goods. And even then, only those goods and commodities from which they can extract the most profit will be most accessible.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) used to protect our rights to access any information we wanted on the Internet. But we lost those protections in August 2005, when the FCC decided to change the way it enforced rules dealing with the Internet. As a consequence, there is now no rule or regulation that will prevent the phone and cable companies from doing what they’ve said they want to do: charge content providers for the right to be on their Internet pipes, and make special deals with some companies to ensure their sites and services work faster and are easier to find by Internet users.

On May 25, the House Judiciary Committee voted 20 to 13 to approve HR 5417, the Internet Freedom and Non-Discrimination Act, a bipartisan net neutrality bill sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI). Co-sponsors are Reps. Rick Boucher (D-VA) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). The strong vote in the Judiciary Committee should send a signal to House leadership that strong net neutrality language must be included in its telecom bill, the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act,(COPE) HR 5252.

There has been unprecedented industry lobbying to block net neutrality. But citizen activists from all sides of the political spectrum, ranging from Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, and Common Cause to the Gun Owners of America and the Christian Coalition, all support net neutrality. Citizens have had to fight not only millions in lobbying on Capitol Hill, but also a sophisticated disinformation campaign. To get the facts out, Common Cause produced the document that follows.

Some Straight Talk on Net Neutrality from Common Cause

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet users should be able to access any web content they choose and use any applications they choose, without restrictions or limitations imposed by their Internet service provider.

Telephone and cable companies that provide Internet access to millions of Americans would like to get rid of net neutrality. They’re spending millions of dollars lobbying Congress for the right to create a two-tier Internet, where their own content and services (and those of businesses that pay them hefty fees) would travel to you quickly and efficiently in the “fast lane,” and all other websites and services would be relegated to the “slow lane.”

Do we have net neutrality today?

Yes. Net neutrality is the reason the Internet has been able to grow exponentially, fuel innovation and alter how we communicate. But that could all change.

In August 2005, the FCC voted to change the way it enforces rules dealing with the Internet, basically eliminating net neutrality. But that FCC decision had a one-year phase-in period, so net neutrality is still in effect for the next few months. But after August 2006, there will be no rule or regulation to stop the phone and cable companies from doing what they’ve said they want to do: charge content providers for the right to be on their Internet pipes, and make special deals with some companies to ensure their sites and services work faster and are easier to find by Internet users. That’s why it’s so critical that Congress acts now to protect freedom on the Internet.

Will net neutrality turn control of the Internet over to government regulators?

No. That argument is a scare tactic employed by the telephone and cable companies. Net neutrality would mean that Internet service providers couldn’t block, impair or discriminate against any lawful Internet content or applications. It does not give the government any special rights or control over Internet traffic.

Telephone and cable companies say that they’re investing millions to build out their high-speed networks to every home and business, but that content providers like Google and Yahoo! want a free ride. Why should content providers get something for nothing?

No content provider gets a free ride. Websites pay for their ability to connect to the Internet, and to run applications like email, video, et cetera. Harold Feld of the Media Access Project estimates that content and service providers paid $10 billion last year alone. That doesn’t sound like a free ride.

If we get rid of net neutrality, what would the impact be?

Internet service providers would be free to block or impede any online content or services, for any reason. They could also charge websites or applications for “priority service,” practically assuring that any site that couldn’t or wouldn’t pay their fees would no longer work as well or be as easy to find. That could spell the end of innovation, as small businesses, entrepreneurs, local governments, nonprofits and others would be locked out of a system controlled by the big telephone and cable companies. If network providers are allowed to control the flow of information, the open and freewheeling nature of the Internet could be lost.

Even worse, we’ll lose the Internet as our “town square” – where we talk to one another, exchange views, find information from many diverse sources of news and opinion, blog, contact candidates and engage in our democracy. We will be left with an Internet that is mostly about selling things – entertainment, TV, films, games and other goods – and that is no longer about citizen engagement.

Is this a real threat?

It’s not just a threat: There have already been instances of Internet providers blocking access to Internet applications that allow you to access your company’s network, share files with peers – even send large attachments (like digital photos) in your email. In 2005, the FCC sanctioned a rural telephone company named Madison River Communications for blocking its DSL customers from making phone calls over the Internet. Also last year, Telus, a telephone company in Canada, blocked its customers from visiting a website sympathetic to the Telecommunications Workers Union during a labor dispute.

Without net neutrality, telephone and cable companies could legally restrict access to any website or Internet application they choose whenever it suits their bottom-line economic, or even political, interests. The industry’s claim that this is “a solution in search of a problem” is shortsighted and untrue.

Companies say that we don’t need a law because the market will take care of any problems that arise.

Verizon, AT&T and other industry executives have repeatedly said that they’ve never blocked any user from any part of the Internet and never would, because if they did customers would simply switch to another Internet service provider. But that doesn’t recognize the reality that the majority of Americans have only one or two choices of broadband service providers. There simply isn’t sufficient competition in the broadband market to prevent abuses.

In addition, if companies say they have never and would never violate net neutrality, then why do they object to laws that protect net neutrality?

Who supports net neutrality?

Net neutrality has widespread support. Organizations ranging from and Consumers Union, to the Christian Coalition and the Gun Owners of America, to the American Library Association and Common Cause have all endorsed net neutrality. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have also petitioned Congress to keep the Internet free and open.