Americans will be forgiven for presuming that the fight to maintain equal access to the Internet, or "net neutrality," could not possibly be as consequential as our wrangling over matters economic, social and military. It's hard to get charged up for a fight on behalf of "neutrality." Yet if citizens do not engage—and fast—decisions made now about how we communicate could warp every political debate in the future. This is why tech-savvy activists are so unsettled by an arrangement between Google and Verizon to subdivide the Internet in a manner that serves their corporate purposes but cheats the promise of digital democracy.
Google and Verizon want the FCC and Congress to allow media giants to transform wireless communications into a digital version of a bad cable TV package. Instead of a free and open Internet that will take Americans where they want to go—thanks to the longstanding neutrality principle, which guarantees equal access to all websites and applications—the Google-Verizon deal would permit Internet service providers to speed up access to some content while leaving the rest behind. Such "pay for priority" would allow big business to buy speed, quality and other advantages—which would not be merely commercial. Now that the Supreme Court has afforded corporations electioneering rights equal to those of citizens, decisions about how we communicate have a profound political component to them.
Imagine if BP could pay to have its messaging dominate digital discussion about the best policies for regulating offshore drilling and carbon emissions—to such an extent that searches for information about "clean energy" would steer straight to corporate spin. This is not a conspiracy theory; big media companies have already barred content about political issues, as Verizon did when it blocked a text-messaging application developed by NARAL Pro-Choice America. With Google in the game, the threat expands exponentially. If its deal with Verizon is allowed, the SavetheInternet.com coalition of consumer, civil rights and advocacy groups argues, "it would divide the information superhighway, creating new private fast lanes for the big players while leaving the little guy stranded on a winding dirt road." Worse still, the coalition explains, allowing corporations to write the rules would turn the FCC into a "toothless watchdog, left fruitlessly chasing complaints and unable to make rules of its own."
That scenario could strangle the Internet's civic and democratic promise while supercharging corporate dominance of the digital discourse about our nation's future. But it doesn't have to happen. The most wired members of Congress, led by Democrats like Edward Markey and Anna Eshoo, have urged the FCC to reassert its authority—by altering flawed Bush-era classifications that narrowed regulator options—and define broadband as a telecommunications service. Such a move would restore the legal framework for net neutrality and protect the rights of citizens and consumers. Markey gets it exactly right when he says, "No private interest should be permitted to carve up the Internet to suit its own purposes. The open Internet has been an innovation engine that has helped power our economy, and fiber-optic fast lanes or tiers that slow down certain content would dim the future of the Internet to the detriment of consumers, competition, job creation and the free flow of ideas." The FCC must move immediately and comprehensively to assure that the public interest, as opposed to corporate greed, defines our digital destiny.