Net neutrality, the free speech issue of our time?
Emily Badger: Net neutrality, the free speech issue of our time?
10 Apr 11

On Friday, the US House of Representatives voted, 240-179, along largely partisan lines to strip the Federal Communications Commission of any authority to regulate net neutrality. The vote has been viewed as mostly symbolic — the Democratic-controlled Senate is unlikely to pass the bill as well, and if it does, President Barack Obama has hinted he would veto it.

But the vote bodes poorly for net neutrality supporters who expected the concept to be enshrined in government regulation by now, more than two years into the Obama era. Those supporters, many of whom have gathered this weekend in Boston for the National Conference for Media Reform, have been deeply disappointed by Obama’s tepid advocacy and the weak net neutrality rules his hand-picked FCC chairman presided over last December.

Now as the political momentum in Washington seems to be headed even farther in the wrong direction — net neutrality represents a dangerous “government takeover of the internet,” its opponents have successfully claimed in the capital — US advocates are trying to ramp up their argument that the wonky, hard-to-grasp technological concept in fact represents the most important free speech issue of our time.

Senator Al Franken started using that phrase in December, and it has been a popular refrain in Boston this weekend as well.

If strong net neutrality rules fail to pass, telecommunications companies and internet service providers could block certain content on the internet, or prioritise content according to who pays the most money.

For free expression advocates, the threat requires thinking about censorship in an entirely different way. Without net neutrality, internet content could potentially be blocked not by the government, but by corporations (with the acquiescence of government institutions that won’t regulate them). And content could be blocked, slowed or prioritised not for religious, political, or ideological reasons, but for business ones.

“It’s not politically motivated, but it could have political effects,” said Aparna Sridhar, policy counsel for Free Press, hinting at what could happen if telecommunications companies carry only the content of individuals and organisations who can afford to pay for it.