The internet might rightly be called the greatest medium of free expression in human history – but just how free is the internet?
This month a federal court ruled that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can block or slow internet content they don’t like … or charge popular sites to be accessed.
In other words, the company that provides your internet can also decide what you see on it.
The ruling has caused an uproar, with everyone from government regulators to high-tech companies trying to decide what to do next. Many of them argue that the principle of “net neutrality” – the idea that every site on the internet should be treated equally by ISPs – is essential to preserving the potential for the internet as a free exchange of ideas.
For Joel Federman, a member of Saybrook’s Human Science faculty who heads its interdisciplinary concentration in Social Transformation, this discussion couldn’t be more crucial. The future of democracy – which depends on access to information – is at stake.
“Net neutrality is an issue of profound importance to those who believe in social justice and in expanding democratic participation in social and political life,” says Federman. “To date, the internet has been one of the great democratizing forces in history, with much additional promise. Net neutrality is one of the basic principles that keeps that promise alive.”
To Federman, the court’s recent ruling falls into a history of attempts to put up barriers to the right of basic civic participation … and anyone who doubts that the internet is now one of the primary venues for civic participation isn’t paying attention to the way politics are conducted, news is followed, and communities are formed today..
“Net neutrality means that anyone with access to a computer and an internet connection has the potential to become a new voice in civil society, at all levels, from the local to the global,” he says. “Allowing internet service providers to set further financial barriers to access the internet is like a “poll tax” for a new generation–it limits participation to those who can afford it, and allows private companies to determine the price of access. So, those interested in promoting social activism and citizen participation have a stake in preserving net neutrality.”
Federman cites some specific actions people can take, such as becoming more informed about the issue through websites like openinternetcoalition.org, or by signing the Common Cause petition to the Federal Communications Commission supporting efforts to maintain net neutrality.
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