On April 6, 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not have the authority to prevent Internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or controlling Internet traffic.
National media outlets reported the story in a timely and accurate fashion. The court decision was described as a victory for Comcast and other ISPs -- and a blow to advocates of "net neutrality" -- the long-standing principle of Internet regulation that ensures web users equal access to all Web sites.
Unfortunately, there hasn't been much follow-up on this decision. Nor have the consequences of the court's ruling received press coverage or analysis. Instead, Tiger Woods' appearance at the Masters Golf Tournament and the roll out of Apple's i-Pad dominated the week's news cycle.
None of this is out of the ordinary, of course. Communication policy decisions rarely get much traction in a journalistic culture obsessed with celebrity, scandal, sports and lifestyle reporting.
"The court decision was described as a victory for Comcast and other ISPs -- and a blow to advocates of 'net neutrality.'"
Nevertheless, the implications of this decision demand greater public scrutiny. As Americans grow increasingly dependent on the Internet for news, information, education and culture, the cable and telephone industries are working tirelessly -- in the courts and in the halls of Congress -- to wrest control of this critical communication infrastructure away from the American people.
In short, ISPs want to be Internet gatekeepers. That is, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner Cable want to be free to pick and choose what online content is made available to Web users. Moreover, these powerful corporations want to charge content providers a fee to guarantee their material moves across the Internet at top speeds.
In essence, the big telephone and cable companies want to turn the Internet into a toll road -- creating fast and slow lanes from Internet traffic -- based on the content providers' ability to pay for the privilege of fast data transmission. This turn of events would radically undermine the Internet's open architecture and change forever how we access online content and services -- from innovative Web applications to independent media outlets such as The Bloomington Alternative.
None of which is to say that the court decision is going unchallenged. Across the country thousands of people, small businesses and nonprofit organizations -- from the Consumers Union and the American Library Association to the Christian Coalition of America -- have signed online petitions urging the FCC to reclassify the Internet as a telecommunication service, thereby reasserting the agency's authority to regulate ISPs.
Responding to this public outcry, members of Congress have voiced their opposition to the court decision. During a Senate Commerce committee hearing last week, Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV) urged FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to reassert the agency's authority over broadband communication and prohibit ISPs from controlling access to online content.
"AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner Cable want to be free to pick and choose what online content is made available to Web users."
And in a letter to SavetheInternet.com, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., argued that the FCC must "make sure the Internet stays in the hands of the American people, that we get to set the rules to benefit all of us, not just a few huge corporations."
Despite recent Senate hearings and the ensuing public uproar over the court's decision, this story rarely makes the headlines or the nightly news for that matter. And in yet another indictment of our educational system, net neutrality doesn't generate much discussion in our schools and universities.
This is where anyone reading this column can make a difference. Internet users need to learn about this critical issue. The bipartisan media reform group, Free Press, is one of the more reliable sources for background information and updates on net neutrality.
Equally important, Internet users should "talk up" net neutrality online and off. Indeed, the Internet is a fantastic resource for horizontal communication, and we should not underestimate the potential for "crowd sourcing" timely information, analysis and organizing around this issue.
And let's not leave out "legacy" media outlets, including local newspapers, radio and television stations. Letters to the editor, phone calls and e-mail to news workers are effective ways to put net neutrality on the news agenda -- and keep it there.
The struggle over the future of the Internet is coming down to the wire. The cable and telephone companies are poised to turn the Internet into a tiered information service -- not unlike the way cable television is packaged and delivered. Now doesn't that sound like a good idea?
Fortunately, the Internet provides an invaluable resource for organizing and activism that can defeat well-heeled corporate interests -- but for how long?
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University and can be reached at email@example.com. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.