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The Time to Act is Now: Defend Free Speech on the Internet

Broadband carriers are fighting for the right to monitor, censor, and control Internet content.
Molly Kaplan,
Former Host of At Liberty,
American Civil Liberties Union
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October 20, 2010

In 2006, America Online censored e-mails that referenced a blog entry questioning the company’s e-mail fee system.

In 2007, AT&T cut out lyrics critical of the Bush administration during its live feed of a Pearl Jam concert. That same year, Verizon Wireless decided that text messages from pro-abortion-rights group NARAL to its supporters were too “controversial,” so it cut off access to the group’s text messaging program.

Preserving network neutrality means preventing these violations of free speech. An ACLU report released yesterday suggests that broadband carriers be held to the same “common carrier” rules that have long been applied to telephone networks, railroads and public highways. “Freedom of expression isn’t worth much if the forums where people actually make use of it are not themselves free,” the report points out.

The Internet has always thrived as an open space of exchange and innovation, but broadband carriers are fighting for the right to monitor, censor, and control Internet content by insisting that they continue to be classified as providers of “information services.”

Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, “information service” providers are not subject to the same common carrier rules as those providing “telecommunications services.” While “telecommunications service” providers transmit information between users without interfering with content as the law defines them, “information service” providers are more like publishers. The telephone company can’t interrupt a phone call if it doesn’t like what’s being said — but because the FCC has classified broadband as an information service, there is nothing to prevent them from doing exactly that on the Internet.

Broadband carriers already have the technological ability to read information as it is being sent, and filter it as they choose. They can change the speed and reliability of service, and they can block customers from using certain applications they don’t like. They have the capacity, and have shown a willingness to use it.

The FCC tried to take action to prevent abuses like those mentioned above — but an April 2010 court decision (PDF) found that the FCC did not have power to enforce network neutrality against information services. The obvious solution is for the FCC to reclassify broadband connectivity services as telecommunications services, as it should have done in the first place.

While President Obama has affirmed his support of network neutrality, saying “The Internet is perhaps the most open network in history, and we have to keep it that way,” the FCC, amid heavy corporate lobbying, is hesitating to do what’s necessary to restore its authority to block broadband providers from discriminating against whom travels its networks and with what load.

Now is the time to act: Two upcoming FCC meetings on November 15 and December 30 could determine the fate of the internet. Contact FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, and tell him to reclassify telecommunications carriers and provide strong network neutrality protections.

The internet is for everyone. Don’t let the telecoms decide otherwise.

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