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Is Internet Freedom a Thing of the Past?

A close look at the current battle over net neutrality, and how last week’s ruling will affect the future of internet freedom.

Is Internet Freedom a Thing of the Past?

Last week’s ruling by a federal court of appeals regarding net neutrality has chafed Internet users all across the country.

Ben Collins points out in Esquire that the issue of net neutrality -- or ‘Internet freedom’ or ‘Internet openness’ as it’s also sometimes called -- is not a political one. Liberals, conservatives and everyone in between will be affected alike. Collins writes, “This is naked corporate greed. It is a bunch of companies who want to control the largest free information platform in the world.”

So what exactly is going on?  Here’s a breakdown to help shed light on this pivotal, and sadly dark, moment in Internet history:

What happened?:  On January 14, a U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington shot down two crucial Federal Communications Commission's open Internet rules, generally known as net neutrality. One was the rule against out-and-out blocking, and the other prevented Internet service providers (ISPs), like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, from favoring or discriminating against websites.

The ruling was based on the fact that, through past battles between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and ISPs, the classification of ISPs was changed to ‘information service providers’ from ‘telecommunications services.’ That little change of terminology lost the FCC its power to regulate what ISPs can do. 

The history is long and sordid. In a scathing article on Slate, Marvin Amori, a lawyer and scholar who specializes in net neutrality, puts the blame at the feet of former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. Amori likens Genachowski’s failure to fix the phrasing to that scene in the “Harry Potter books when the coward Peter Pettigrew, who had immense power as James Potter’s secret-keeper, makes a deal with Voldemort and betrays the wizarding world.”  Those are some strong feelings. 

What it means: As things stand, the future of the Internet looks less like the open public utility we are used to, and more like cable TV, where users will have no say in what’s available. According to Ben Collins, the “very best scenario a consumer can hope for is this: Companies will start offering ‘unlimited’ Internet plans to access the Internet you currently see today. The Web will be partitioned off into sections, like cable tiers, and those ISPs will offer speedier connections to certain kinds of websites if you buy into each tier.”  On the other hand, “The very worst a consumer can expect is that some information will be deemed too unsavory for public consumption, while select corporate messages can be blasted to your home at lightning speed.”

What we can do: If all of this sounds distressing to you, you’re not alone. Petitions have sprung up all over the web to preserve Internet freedom. For instance, this one seeks signatures to pressure President Obama to get involved. You can also write letters and emails to your congressman or the FCC. 

Unless the FCC successfully appeals to regain control of ICPs, the future of the Internet looks grim. But the fight isn't over yet.

Are you concerned about the future of the Internet?  Tell us in the comments or in a blog post.

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