Ohio State University

Net Neutrality Is Not Neutral for Democracy by Ron Fornaro @ Ohio State University

Our Values, Change, and Net Neutrality

Freedom and Speech and Freedom of the press are two of the most important tenants in our bill of rights and for American civic identity in general, and those have been put under threat by the repeal of net neutrality. Net neutrality is a regulation which keeps internet providers from prioritizing certain information, making it harder to find certain information, and it also keeps companies from charging extra for certain content such as Twitter or YouTube[1].  These rights are important because they allow the public to criticize the government and other institutions, which in theory helps keep them in check.  They also help to create an educated citizenry with access to information and differing viewpoints, the cornerstone of most democracies.

The creation of the internet really changed the way we view these freedoms, and really ramped up the amount of access, people had, not only to others opinions but to voice their own as well.  The internet is truly where freedom of speech and press meet technology.  News sites, opinion pieces, and information from all over the United States and the world allow for unprecedented access to information, but also the newfound ability to share your opinion with the entirety of the United States without having to go through the usual channels such as cable news or newspapers.  In effect, information was released from the holds of its traditional gatekeepers, news corporations, and editors

Such an earth-shattering invention as the internet was left to be regulated by the FCC, or the Federal Communications Commission, whose job started with the regulation of the radio and television, but later grew to include the internet.[2]  The structure of this bureaucratic commission is headed by five commissioners who are appointed by the president for five years, and there can only be three from the same party.  Due to the process by which they are appointed, they are usually rather insulated from public opinion.  However, while the FCC is not usually the center of public discourse this changed when the Republican majority commission would vote to end the Obama era rule of net neutrality.  In late 2017, the FCC went through with its promise to vote and repeal net neutrality in spite of a mass public outcry against it, which included many companies who are prevalent on the internet such as Netflix.  Many of these companies were disappointed, and fear that they can now be forced to pay money to internet providers in order to be included in certain packages, and remain prevalent on the internet[3].  Much of this blame was thrown to the Republicans, especially President Trump, as the vote was directly along ideological lines with three Republicans voting to repeal, and two Democrats voting to not repeal[4].  This decision was also supported by Republican leaders in the Senate and the President.

Can Anyone Stop It

This new change in Bureaucratic regulations can only be blocked by a vote in the Senate, which is unlikely as it is controlled by the party that endorsed the move.  With very few barriers left it is possible, and I happen to agree, that the Internet could become a very different landscape as compared to the one that we see today.  Sites, where people can freely share their opinions with others, such as Twitter, can now be blocked by companies, and people who cannot afford such luxuries can now be blocked from accessing and participating in public discourse.  The majority of peoples’ information now comes from the internet, and limiting that or putting up cost barriers would greatly affect public knowledge of events and viewpoints, as well as prioritize only certain avenues of gaining information.  Agree with it or not the majority of the public discourse is now on the internet, and our values of freedom of the press and speech need to be extended to the internet in order to reflect that.

Does This Relate to Democracy

Some people may ask themselves is this really a threat to Democracy?  The answer to that is that it depends on your definition of Democracy.  My definition and the definition of many others tend to fall in line with people like Robert Dahl[5] and Larry Diamond[6] who believe that civil liberties and freedoms are an essential part of the equation.  There is also a question of whether this is truly democratic erosion as it would be private companies to institute these changes if they choose to do so.  The answer to that question is also yes because democratic backsliding is about society as much as it is about the government taking action.  If the world changes to the point where we are not able to share our opinions online or have access to certain information due to price walls, then our democratic society has truly eroded.  Thomas Jefferson believed education was the most important part of a Democracy, and I believe one of the key tenants of education is exposure to different opinions and access to different sources of information other than cable news and your local paper, but if the ability to access free information, share your opinions freely, and not be censured at the whims of a company are not taken seriously then we will have a culture where freedom of speech and information are less important, and the public is less engaged and educated, and therefore less democratic.

Solutions

The rule change will not go into effect for some time, and even after that, it will be up to internet providing companies to decide if they will institute any changes.  Some like Comcast have already said their users will not experience any changes[7], however, I believe that even if they do not change anything today the protection needs to be put back in place for the future.  The Senate can do this by reversing the decision, which is not likely or the Federal court system can rule in favor of net neutrality in a court case. However, one thing is for certain, and that is that we must prioritize the right to information on the internet in order to strengthen our democracy and elevate the internet to a place of importance when it comes to free public discourse and educating the citizens of the United States of America.

 

 

Photo:

By Original by en: Camilo Sanchez (talk) 18:46, 19 July 2008 (UTC), vector version by Jeff Dahl [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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