By Cesar Arredondo, New America Media
LOS ANGELES—Walk into almost any coffee house these days and you’ll find the tables filled with professionals and students hunched over their laptops, conducting their daily lives via the Internet. They spend hours navigating through a virtual universe, freely tapping into a phenomenal network of information the likes of which has never been seen in history.
Yet, despite their techno- and World-Wide-Web savvy, most of these people remain ignorant of an issue that’s key to their virtual lives. Their access to the Internet could soon change—drastically.
Interviews with nearly 50 laptop users at a half dozen cafes in the Los Angeles metropolitan area—from East L.A. to Compton to Hawthorne—found that the majority didn't know what Net neutrality or "open Internet" is, despite using the Web every day.
As heated battles are being waged in Washington over whether and how to keep the Internet easily available to all, this informal survey suggests why there are significant challenges in informing the public about what’s going on.
WHAT IS OPEN INTERNET?
"Is it related to accessing the Internet through Wi-Fi,” asked Mayte Rodriguez, as she looked up from her keyboard at a Starbucks in East Los Angeles.
"The open Internet, also known as net neutrality, is a concept that unfortunately many people don't know about or understand, but which has a great impact on all of us nowadays because of our growing dependence on the Internet for everything, from work to education to job training to keeping in touch with one another," said Joseph Torres, a senior adviser at the nonpartisan Free Press, a nonprofit based in Washington , D.C.
Torres explained the basic principle of Net neutrality. It means Internet service providers, such as AT&T, Verizon or Comcast, may not impede the public’s access to the content and applications of their choice online.
Net neutrality, Torres stressed, ensures a level playing field for all websites and Internet technologies. That is the way the Net has worked for many years, he said.
However, this principle is not established in law. Big telecommunications companies want to do away with Net neutrality. That possibility alarms activists like Torres, who fear the Internet is in danger of being closed off to millions of people, who could not pay the usage fees those companies hope to charge —especially lower-income ethnic groups, small business owners, working-class people and independent artists.
A CONTROVERSIAL CASE
Last April, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency that oversees radio, television, wire, satellite and cable, does not have the authority to regulate the telecom industry’s practices around broadband Internet access.
This decision came after a three-year battle over a case in which Internet service provider Comcast was found to have secretly blocked its customers from using BitTorrent, a free file-sharing application.
The FCC had determined that Comcast had violated the commission’s Internet Policy statement, which was drafted to protect the public’s online rights. However, the appeals court effectively nullified the FCC’s power to set and enforce Internet policies.
As a result, say free speech advocates, the court’s ruling has paved the way for Internet service providers, or ISPs, to block or slow down sites they don’t like for political or other reasons, or who may be competitive rivals to bigger-paying clients of these companies.
This decision has pitted corporations, such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon against content companies like Amazon, eBay and Skype (a free Internet-based long-distance phone service). Joining the content companies in the fight are advocates for free speech and disadvantaged communities, entrepreneurs and independent bloggers and artists.
They all have been waging a war of arguments and interests at the FCC. The telecom companies are pushing back hard against the FCC’s attempts to restore its authority over Internet policies. That battle has been largely out of the public limelight because of the obscure legal technicalities. Yet, as Torres noted, the future of the Internet rests on decisions being made on the public’s behalf without their participation.
Comcast and AT&T did not respond to requests for comment for this article. But in media reports and statements, they have said that making net neutrality law could stifle innovation and kill jobs. That’s an argument, say advocates, for which they have yet to show any convincing evidence.
A FILMMAKER FOR NET NEUTRALITY
Among those supporting an open Internet here in Los Angeles is Crystal Page, an independent filmmaker, who directed the children's film "The Homework Ate My Dog." Because Page uses the Internet to promote her movie, she worries about having to pay additional money to compete with big businesses.
"An open Internet allows artists like me to pursue projects like my film to inspire kids to do well in school,” Page said. "It makes our work more accessible. But if Net neutrality is taken away, the little guys like me won't be able to do our work or compete in a world ruled by corporations.”
Page is also concerned about how a limited Internet could affect her job. She's an associate producer at Brave New Films, a small but successful independent company that produces and distributes videos on the World Wide Web. A closed Internet could hamper the company's efforts to serve its audience, Page said.
CONCERN AMONG IMMIGRANTS
Similar fears exist at Mobile Voices, a project that trains low-wage immigrants to create video stories about their communities using their mobile phones and then publishes them on its site: http://vozmob.net. Mobile Voices is a partnership between the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California and the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California.
"We produce news stories from the perspective of us immigrants,” said Maria de Lourdes Gonzalez. She complained that mainstream media have ignored many issues facing Hispanics, African-Americans and other ethnic groups for a long time. Mobile voices, she said, “helps us organize and mobilize our people.”
Among Mobile Voices' collection of more than 300 videos and slide shows is Gonzalez's "Working Hands," a photo essay showcasing close-ups of the hands of gardeners, construction workers, janitors, tortilla makers, cooks and plumbers. Other works cover immigration reform and marches, voting and housing.
For Gonzalez, the open Internet is a matter of preserving freedom of speech and association. "Without a place [on the Internet], we can't come together and affect change," she said.
BATTLES: PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
The fight to permanently secure an open Internet has long gone on in the United States. Although President Obama and many Democratic lawmakers support Net neutrality, they have suffered setbacks lately.
Congress is showing signs of being heavily influenced by the telecom corporations. According to data provided by Free Press, industry lobbyists got close to 80 House Democrats and nearly all House Republicans to sign on to letters opposing the FCC’s efforts to reassert its regulatory powers by reshaping certain telecommunications policies.
Instead, these telecom supporters are taking a curiously paradoxical position, calling for a congressional mandate that would restore the FCC’s authority to regulate the broadband Internet industry. But that legislation has been stalled for some time with little chance of passage, and critics say that this is a tactic to actually prevent the FCC from regaining its powers.
In the meantime, the battles continue around the nation. Crystal Page, the filmmaker from Los Angeles, who is heavily involved in the campaign to keep the Internet open, says she'll keep on using the power of a mouse click and the Internet itself to make her voice heard in the debate.
"I'll make phone calls, write to my legislators, and spread the word on Facebook and other sites about safeguarding an open Internet,” she said. "This fight could shape our view of history."