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Pro: Net Neutrality absolutely vital to assuring progressive free speech

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Mark Weisbrot
September 18, 2010
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Should the FCC reject the Google-Verizon plan and impose Net Neutrality?

The mass media remains one of the most powerful forces blocking social and economic progress in the 21st century.


It is because of the mass media that tens of millions of Americans are convinced that budget deficits are more important than the lives ruined by unemployment, or that Social Security won’t be there for them when they retire. Or that their government’s occupation of Afghanistan and its hundreds of military bases around the world, are protecting the “national security” of U.S. citizens.


All of these destructive myths—and many more—could be dispelled within a relatively short time if there were a free marketplace of ideas, instead of the “free press for those who own it” model currently in place.


Of course, other falsehoods would persist for much longer; ideas, once widely accepted, can have great inertia. But during the last two decades the Internet has introduced a degree of competition in the world of mass communications, which although still quantitatively small, is nonetheless unprecedented.


An interactive process has been set in motion with the Internet and the blogosphere acting as a check on the mass media—sometimes breaking important news that would otherwise go unnoticed or unreported in systems with direct censorship such as China and also in limited democracies like the United States; and sometimes influencing the journalists who produce the mass media.


This process has the potential for accelerating with the development and spread of Internet technology, for example to Internet television; and of course with advances in literacy and education.


This is rare in the history of technology, and especially in the technology of communications. Almost all prior innovations—radio, television and motion pictures—have mostly made it easier for the few to control the many—like pilotless drone military planes.


This progressive contribution of the Internet is reliant on the principle of “net neutrality”: that Internet service providers treat all packets of data the same. An individual blogger’s challenge to The Washington Post can be downloaded by anyone at the same speed as the content of the multibillion dollar corporate newspaper itself. Intelligent readers can decide for themselves who is correct.


The Federal Communications Commission has been considering what its role and rules should be for enforcing net neutrality, and in early August Google and Verizon put forth their own proposal on these issues.


These two big corporations, along with others, are likely to have a considerable influence on the FCC and Congress, and their proposal has elicited a torrent of criticism. It exempts wireless and other “online services” from net neutrality, and has other big loopholes.


There is now a clear and present danger that the road will be paved to a fragmented Internet where service providers can determine what people will see on the Web, and carve out a “non-neutral” sector. As Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has noted, defending net neutrality is “the First Amendment issue of our time.”


America’s great concentrations of wealth—more concentrated than at any time since the 1920s—already dominate the Internet. But not nearly as much as they dominate the vast majority of information that Americans receive from more monopolized info-tainment news outlets such as TV, radio and what remains of the newspaper industry.


A coalition of organizations including MoveOn.org, Color of Change, Free Press and Credo Action is calling on Americans to lend a hand and preserve this one remaining mass medium of free speech and equal rights, before it is remade in accordance with corporate needs. We the people need the Internet as we know it is the essential tool in ongoing battle of ideas.


It is time to fight for it.


Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Readers may write to him at CEPR, 1611 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20009-1052; Web site: www.cepr.net.

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