MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – Minneapolis will host the nation's first public hearing tonight on the future of the Internet. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has organized the town hall event in the wake of a high-profile proposal from tech giants Google and Verizon. The companies propose to leave "wired" Internet free and open, but allow corporations to manage the data flow on fast-growing wireless networks.
Often referred to as the "net neutrality" issue, proponents believe the current Internet system works best, which is to allow users equal access to any information without restriction. Under the proposed rules, Internet service providers could discriminate by providing faster access for their paid content and put other non-paying content in the "slow lane."
Amalia Deloney, grass roots media policy director for the Center for Media Justice, says with everyday lives so connected to the Internet, there's too much at stake to give that much power to the service providers.
"We need to be able to have an experience online that's really open and unfettered; where we don't have to worry about paying more for a certain premium service. Is content being discriminated against, or a tool being discriminated against, or an application, because a certain Internet service provider isn't profiting from it?"
Deloney says the United States is fast becoming a divided nation of technological "haves" and "have-nots," and those without access to the Internet or without the education or skills to utilize online tools have no shot at competing with their more tech-savvy 21st Century counterparts.
"It's important that we close this digital divide in a real way, and that people understand that many of us have very different experiences, and different communities are being left out. It's absolutely crucial that their voices are heard."
Steven Renderos, media justice organizer for the Main Street Project, says more and more people are pushed online because their very livelihoods depend on it.
"The easiest way to access unemployment is by filing online. To apply for jobs here in the Twin Cities, many of the lowest-paying jobs, even those jobs, you have to apply online."
While the issue of access is critical, ensuring an "open internet" needs to happen first, says Renderos.
"The Internet should remain, and always be, an open communications platform, where any idea, and any user cannot be discriminated against. But, it makes no difference if you have access to an Internet that's no longer an open platform."
The townhall-style hearing starts tonight at 6:00 p.m. at South High School in Minneapolis. Featured speakers include FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn, and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. The hearing will be streamed live online at www.theuptake.org.