Net Neutrality, Back by Popular Demand

February 05, 2015

By Amy Goodman with Denis Moynihan

In January 2011, thousands gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, threatening for the first time the 30-year dictatorship of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Decades of suppressed dissent was finding an outlet in the streets and online as well. Six months earlier, in Alexandria, 28-year-old Khaled Saeed was dragged out of a cybercafe and beaten to death by police. Photos of his corpse, released by his family, went viral on the Internet, fomenting discontent. Wael Ghonim, an Internet engineer and activist, created a Facebook page, “We Are All Khaled Saeed,” serving as a platform for hundreds of thousands to organize.

As the crowds swelled in Tahrir, the power of the Internet as a force for social change was being demonstrated hour by hour. In response, Mubarak shut down the Internet, as well as most cellphone service. Universal outcry forced him to turn it back on.

Which brings us to net neutrality: the fundamental notion that anyone on the Web can reach anyone else, that users can just as easily access a small website launched in a garage as they can access major Internet portals like Google or Yahoo. Net neutrality is the Internet’s protection against discrimination.

During the past two decades, as the Internet flourished and transformed our society, several major corporations have assumed dominant “gatekeeper” positions, threatening net neutrality. Among them, the large Internet service providers, or ISPs: AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner and Comcast. These four phone and cable companies make massive, multi-billion-dollar profits while charging enormous fees and providing, at best, lackluster service.

In 2004, the Federal Communications Commission, under its then-chairman, Michael Powell, the son of Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell, set forth principles for an “open Internet.” In practice, these favored those very corporations that profit from a regulatory “light touch.” Powell left office and became the head of the cable industry’s lobbying organization, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), demonstrating clearly the corrupt revolving door between federal regulators and the industries they are supposed to oversee.

Nearly 10 years later, President Barack Obama named Tom Wheeler, the former head of the NCTA, to lead the FCC. Wheeler was a major donor to Obama’s presidential campaigns. After a federal court struck down the “open Internet” rules, Wheeler announced that the FCC would be making new ones. Advocates for a free and open Internet were worried that this former lobbyist would end the Internet as we know it, handing the keys over to the major telecom and cable corporations.

This announcement sparked a massive protest movement. Led by organizations like Free Press and Public Knowledge, people camped out in front of the FCC for days. More than 4 million people commented on the rules, making this the largest response to any federal request for public comment in history.

Read the rest of the column posted at Truthdig.

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