A “Separate but Equal” Internet?

Posted on 21 March 2012

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By Stephanie Chen and Chris Brown
Greenlining Institute

Californians know better than anyone that in today’s world technology is the essential portal to information, and the old line that knowledge is power is truer than ever.  Information technology has the potential to be a great social and economic equalizer – but only if we preserve today’s open Internet.

That is not by any means a sure thing, and a U.S. Senate bill that would go a long way toward solving the problem hasn’t made progress. California’s representatives in Washington have a mixed record at best.

There is a real danger we could let ourselves slip into a sort of segregated, “separate but equal” Internet, as laid out in The Greenlining Institute’s new report, “Saving the Open Internet: The Importance of Net Neutrality.” In ways that many policymakers don’t seem to grasp, this is a civil rights issue.

Some on the far right would have you believe that net neutrality is code for government control of the Internet, but it’s no such thing. Net neutrality is actually just a modern version of a very old principle, first embodied in the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860.  

Back when the telegraph was cutting-edge communications technology, there was concern that telegraph companies would pick favorites – transmitting messages they liked right away while delaying those they disliked, including communications from rivals or competitors. So Congress stepped in to require that each telegraph message be “impartially transmitted in order of its reception,” without the telegraph company picking out favored communications for preferred treatment.

Today’s technology has advanced far beyond dots and dashes transmitted over wires, but the basic idea remains precisely the same: Companies that control the “pipes” through which information flows shouldn’t become censors, favoring or disfavoring messages because they approve or disapprove of the content or the sender.

Without net neutrality, any provider could block or slow down messages it doesn’t like, including those from competitors. Or it can force low-income individuals or small businesses into Internet “slow lanes,” reserving faster speeds and swifter transmission for those who can afford to pay the most. This could impose real hardship on millions. In a wired world, those with the weakest wires are at a permanent and serious disadvantage.

The winners in such a scenario will be the largest, wealthiest firms and individuals. The losers will be small businesses and people with low incomes. Communities of color are particularly vulnerable.

Of particular concern is the wireless field, where the FCC’s efforts to preserve net neutrality have been weakest. This weakness especially threatens people of color: As documented in Greenlining’s 2011 report, iHealth, people of color are less likely than whites to have broadband access at home and are more likely to access the Internet via a smartphone rather than a computer.

At present, the FCC’s level of authority to preserve an open Internet is under dispute. A measure in Congress to definitively deny the agency such authority passed the House in 2011, with California’s delegation splitting along party lines – Republicans voting for and Democrats voting against a measure that, in the words of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), would “end the Internet as we know it and threaten the jobs, investment and prosperity that the Internet has brought to America.” Fortunately, it died in the Senate.

A Senate bill to firmly establish the FCC’s ability to preserve net neutrality, SB 74, was introduced last year but has gone essentially nowhere. The measure was authored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and is cosponsored by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). Disturbingly, neither of California’s U.S. senators is yet on board.

California, the very heart of the Internet communications revolution, needs to do better than this. If Californians don’t provide the leadership needed to preserve a free, open Internet, who will?


Chris Brown is legal associate and Stephanie Chen is senior legal counsel at The Greenlining Institute, www.greenlining.org.