Guest Blog: Joshua Breitbart is the Policy Director for People’s Production House. This Op-Ed originally appeared in the online version of The Weekly Haitian Times on Nov. 19th, 2009
For many of us, the diversity and abundance of information on the Internet has become part of our daily lives. We assume that we will always be able to view the websites of our choosing and even upload our own photos and videos onto the Internet. However, as teachers of radio journalism, we can't take net neutrality – the principle that prohibits discrimination of content and applications on the Internet – for granted. Our organization, People's Production House, includes lessons on net neutrality as part of our year-long courses in public schools because without it, our students could soon be making entertaining and informative radio pieces without the ability to share them online.
With last week's introduction of Resolution 712, the New York City Council has taken up this important issue. While we don't hear much about it in the news, the current debate over net neutrality will determine the future of how we communicate. Two companies alone – Verizon and AT&T – have spent over $20 million on federal lobbying this year trying to thwart The Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009, a bill in Congress that would enshrine net neutrality in law. Resolution 712, if the Council passes it, would endorse this bill.
Net neutrality was the law of the land until 2005 and it brought us many benefits. Skype is an Internet-based voice service that is extremely popular among the recent immigrants we teach who wish to keep in touch with family around the world. Skype competes with the voice services of cable companies like Optimum and Time Warner. Without net neutrality, those companies could have kept Skype and similar products like Magic Jack from launching by blocking it or charging the companies exorbitant fees that would be passed on to users.
Opponents of net neutrality point to the existing variety of online voice services as evidence that the system works. They call net neutrality a "solution in search of a problem," but the problem is staring anyone who owns an Internet-enabled mobile phone right in the face. As it is now, most cellular phone companies – who have so far been exempt from net neutrality – block Skype from operating on their networks so people are forced to use their minutes for calls rather than their data connections.
This is particularly harmful to poor people, people of color, and seniors who are all more likely to have a mobile phone than a broadband-enabled personal computer or laptop. While laptop users can use whatever chat or voice service they want – thanks, so far, to net neutrality – mobile phone users can only access the parts of the Internet that their service providers approve. For international calls they still have to rely on expensive phone company connections or unreliable pre-paid phone cards. We need to extend net neutrality protections to wireless networks, not allow these kinds of discriminatory practices to spread, especially not now that the Bloomberg administration is finally taking action to close the digital divide in our city with its new NYC Connected Communities initiative.
Some companies say they need to be able to block unreasonable use of their networks. Then why, in 2007, when cable television and Internet service behemoth Comcast was found to be blocking a service called Bit Torrent that is popular for downloading movies, did they at first try to deny it? The Federal Communications Commission penalized the company, but Comcast is challenging the FCC's authority in court – suing for its right to block our access to video services like Bit Torrent or voice services like Skype. Now that Comcast is seeking to purchase NBC Universal, it will have even more reason to block competitors' content traveling over their wires.
For community journalists like the immigrants, low-wage workers, and public school students that we teach at People's Production House, this is a scary thought. The NBC corporation has been broadcasting its content since 1926, while our trainees are just now finding the power of distributing their own media through the Internet. They're finding new ways of engaging in civic life, new job skills, and a new sense of community, locally and globally. Without net neutrality, Comcast and other corporate giants could take that power away.