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.
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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.
In a blog post on the website of the magazine Wired this week, Wheeler made a stunning revelation. “Originally, I believed that the FCC could assure Internet openness through a determination of ‘commercial reasonableness,’” he wrote. This is what had worried proponents of network neutrality. Major ISPs would be allowed to discriminate, favoring some websites over others, as long as they weren’t being “unreasonable.” Wheeler continued in his Wired piece, “I am proposing that the FCC use its Title II authority to implement and enforce open Internet protections.”
What Wheeler means by “Title II authority” is that he has made an about-face and will propose rules that the Internet be regulated like a public utility, as are other central pillars of our society like power utilities, water systems and the telephone system. Imagine if the water coming out of your tap was less clean than water at a neighbor’s house, because the neighbor pays for premium water. Public utilities are regulated. People get the same service, without discrimination.
The large Internet providers will be prevented from discriminating against people who publish on the Internet, or against those who seek out information on the Internet. All must be treated equally, regardless of race, color, beliefs and, perhaps most importantly, how rich they are. The major corporate ISPs have lobbied hard to create a multitiered Internet to squeeze more profit out of this public treasure. Tom Wheeler and the other commissioners have listened, not only to President Obama, but to the public, millions of people who have demanded the fundamental right to communicate without discrimination.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.