You might not know it, but there's a crucial debate happening now in Washington about the future of the Internet. Decisions made by Congress and the Federal Communications Commission in the next few years -- if not sooner -- will determine whether we protect free speech online, close the digital divide, and bring a greater diversity of voices to this transformative medium.
The world of technology is rapidly changing. Pretty soon, you'll get all your media -- TV, phone, radio and the Web -- from the same high-speed Internet connection. The potential democratic, economic, public safety and educational benefits of the Internet are almost limitless. Wiring our nation with a high-speed Internet connection is now a public necessity, just like water, gas or electricity.
Unfortunately, the powerful cable and telecom industry doesn't value the Internet for its public interest benefits. Instead, these companies too often believe that to safeguard their profits, they must control what content you see and how you get it. Their plans could have dire consequences for those whose voices are often marginalized by our nation's media system.
For communities of color, the Internet offers a critical opportunity to build a more equitable media system. It provides all Americans with the potential to speak for themselves without having to convince large media conglomerates that their voices are worthy of being heard.
Our Internet freedom is protected by a fundamental principle called "Network Neutrality," which allows the public to access any Web site or any Web application of their choice without discrimination. Net Neutrality has been the guiding principle of the Internet since its inception -- but now it's in danger.
Big phone and cable companies want to decide for you which Web sites and services go fast or slow. While the big corporate sites, especially the ones owned by these companies, get a spot in the fast lane on the information superhighway, everyone else -- small businesses, independent publications, community groups -- will be stuck on the slow road to irrelevance.
These companies spend a lot of money spreading misinformation about their plans. They've said there's no evidence that they're going to interfere with the Internet and that they can trusted to do the right thing. But actions speak louder than words.
In the most glaring example, last October the Associated Press found that cable giant Comcast was crippling a popular way of sharing large files called BitTorrent -- which allows people to quickly download large files such as videos, movies, and music without using a lot of bandwidth.
BitTorrent is perfectly legal. Hollywood studios and music companies use BitTorrent to distribute high quality films, TV shows and music. Even NASA has started using it to send high-resolution photos from outer space. Bit Torrent also provides Internet users with an online version of video-on-demand, allowing them to easily download content of their choosing. It is an ideal application for independent artists and individuals seeking an inexpensive distribution system.
Comcast claims BitTorrent users are hogging the network. But they don't just cut off high-volume users trying to download 20 movies at a time. They block everybody. AP reporters weren't even able to download a copy of the Bible.
Here's what Comcast really doesn't like about BitTorrent: It's competition for their own video business. If we can pick and choose what we want to see for ourselves, we might be less inclined to keep paying Comcast an arm and a leg for all the channels we don't watch.
Comcast is abusing its power. And their actions clearly violate FCC rules that say the Internet can be accessed by users without restrictions. After public interest groups led by Free Press filed a complaint -- and thousands of angry Internet users flooded their in-boxes -- the FCC launched an official investigation.
This investigation may well determine whether the Internet will remain open and free. After claiming they would never discriminate, Comcast is now trying to undermine the guiding principles of Network Neutrality by blocking whatever they want. The other big Internet providers -- like AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner -- filed in support of Comcast's right to discriminate because they want to do the same thing.
Communities of color and other under-represented groups have long fought for a more diverse and inclusive media system. Discrimination and segregation prevented people of color from obtaining radio or TV licenses when these mediums were first created. During the 1970s, cable promised to be a real alternative to TV for communities of color seeking diverse programming; it didn't happen. Yet, many of these very same companies now want to prevent Internet users, including people of color, from accessing diverse online content of their choice.
While our nation must overcome the digital divide so everyone will have high-speed broadband access, the principles of Network Neutrality are important to ensure the Internet provides a real opportunity for all Americans to speak with their own voices.
The FCC's investigation of Comcast -- and passage of the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act" (HR 5353), bipartisan legislation now pending in Congress to protect Net Neutrality -- will go a long way toward determining whether the Internet will protect the First Amendment rights of all Internet users and whether people of color will finally have unfettered access to a equitable media system.
Make your voices heard. The stakes couldn't be any higher.
Mark Lloyd is author of Prologue to a Farce: Communication and Democracy in America.