What would you think of a world in which people couldn’t afford to look online for jobs and kids couldn’t afford to do their online schoolwork?
For that matter, would you be troubled if news and information about some controversial matter became tougher to find online because the major providers of internet service would just as soon you didn’t hear of it?
The Federal Communications Commission wants to usher in that world. FCC Chairman Ajit V. Pai has a plan to scrap nearly every rule on the books that protects “net neutrality,” the idea that the companies that deliver internet service can’t pick and choose what you get to see or charge you extra for, say, applying for a job or watching a movie.
The full commission is expected to approve the plan at its Dec. 14 meeting. The Federal Trade Commission still would retain limited oversight, but not enough to really matter.
Exploring the offerings of a vibrant internet in any way we want — or to look for just what we need — has become second nature to the point that it practically feels like a constitutional right. And given the importance on easy access to the digital world, that wide sense of entitlement is healthy.
But, as the FCC is happy demonstrate, access to the internet is anything but a right. Though all of us, as taxpayers, paid to help create the internet, the big providers are eager to harness and own it, treating it as their own personal profit stream. They want to write the rules.
Most of us have few choices, or perhaps only one, when it comes to signing up for a high-speed internet provider. If that provider decides it wants to charge extra for some things and make other online sites and services simply unavailable, perhaps because those sites and services are competitors, there won’t be much many people can do about it.
Worse, they might never know what they are missing. As Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said Wednesday, “It may no longer hold true that every user has undisrupted access to any site at any time.”
To get a glimpse of the future, just look to the past, before net neutrality rules were in place. In 2007, Verizon Wireless said it had the right to block “controversial or unsavory” text messages and applied that content from Naral Pro-Choice America. Also in 2007, lyrics performed by Pearl Jam that criticized then-President George W. Bush were censored from an AT&T webcast, which AT&T subsequently admitted shouldn’t have happened. In 2005, a Canadian internet provider, Telcus, blocked internet subscribers’ access to a pro-union website.
As we look around us, we see a trend toward fewer and fewer hands controlling the flow of news and ideas, something that’s always bad for a democracy. Sinclair Broadcast Group, already the biggest U.S. broadcaster with 191 TV stations, wants to buy Tribune Media, which has 42 stations. AT&T wants to buy Time Warner, which owns HBO, CNN, TBS, TNT, the Cartoon Network and the Warner Bros. movie and TV studio.
Ending net neutrality would be another step in silencing the chorus of voices and ideas we cherish.
If the courts don’t block this dangerous idea, Congress should step in. Actually, Congress should have stepped in years ago.
If net neutrality disappears, you still will be able to go online to complain. But no one may be able to see that complaint.
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