Whether you consider yourself a techno-geek or a computerphobe, Net Neutrality is something you ought to care about as a non-profit leader. The basic principle of Network Neutrality is that Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as Comcast or AT&T, cannot favor one website over another when delivering service to their customers. It means that “ISPs may not discriminate [among] different kinds of content and applications online. [Net Neutrality] guarantees a level playing field for all websites and Internet technologies.” (SavetheInternet.com )
Until recently, the principle of Net Neutrality, although not written into law, was widely followed by ISPs. However, in April the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a landmark ruling, overturned a Federal Communications Commission order and held that the FCC did not have the authority to require Comcast – and by extension, other ISPs - to treat different types of content equally. One commentator likened this ruling to the Citizens United* case in terms of its impact. [Nick Baumann, Mother Jones]
In the absence of rules requiring Net Neutrality, your ISP can choose which sites you receive and how quickly or slowly a site loads, based on political, financial or any other motivation.
For example, Microsoft could pay your ISP so that Bing loads faster than Google. AT&T could censor – and has been accused of so doing –concert broadcasts that criticize political figures. The Big Brother potential for invisible, insidious influence is almost limitless, and those who favor it have very deep pockets. ISPs could also move to cable TV-type package pricing requiring consumers to pay more for access to certain websites.
With Net Neutrality, ISPs could still balance demands on their resources in an open and transparent way, such as de-prioritizing all streaming music sites to allow for other traffic to maintain a healthy speed. They could create a tiered pricing system so that customers who make a lot of large downloads every month pay more – just like texting on a cell phone. But they can’t make these decisions based on political or corporate interests.
Why Does This Affect Your Nonprofit?
With media conglomerations becoming bigger and more complicated, it’s not difficult to see the potential for abuse without an enforced Net Neutrality policy. Comcast, the largest cable company in the United States, is negotiating a merger with NBC Universal. NBC Universal operates MSNBC and MSNBC.com as a joint venture with Microsoft. If the merger completes, MSNBC becomes a part of Comcast. There is then a financial incentive for Comcast to favor MSNBC.com over CNN.com, or stop providing access to CNN.com.
Now expand this concept to other issues. Do you want a giant corporation deciding whether a pro-life or pro-choice site is accessible? Whether community opposition to a proposed building project isn’t available because the developer paid your ISP to block it? Whether Net Neutrality itself gets discussed on the Web?
Net Neutrality ensures that ISPs cannot affect access to your organization’s website, regardless of mission. Every website, every viewpoint, is equal.
President Obama’s appointee as chair of the FCC, Julius Genachowski, is a strong proponent of Net Neutrality. The agency’s National Broadband Plan seeks to “foster competition, drive demand for increased network performance and lower the cost of deploying infrastructure” in order to “… expand services and infrastructure and reform access to rights-of-way …” One of its official goals is that “every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service.”
What Can You Do?
In May, the FCC proposed to regulate ISPs as telecommunications companies, a key change which, if it goes into effect, would bypass the D.C. Circuit’s decision. Lobbyists for Internet providers are out in full force to prevent this reclassification.
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* The January 2010 Supreme Court ruling that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.
In the ED Forum, TSNE’s Executive Director Jonathan Spack reflects on issues facing non-profit organizations. He invites your ideas and insights in response to his columns. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanSpack.