Monday, August 23, 2010

Fight Over Net Neutrality Comes to Inner City

From "
It's not often that the faces behind the federal government show up in places like South High School in the Corcoran neighborhood of Minneapolis, one of the city's poorest and most racially diverse sections. Especially to talk about the Internet, of all things. But this is where the Federal Communications Commission held its first public hearing about Net neutrality, the idea that all data transmitted over the Internet should be treated equally by service providers. In the weeks since Google and Verizon submitted a proposal that would not preserve Net neutrality for wireless Internet platforms like the iPhone, the issue has grown into a contentious one. In a brief speech before the public comment period, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken called Net neutrality the "First Amendment issue of our time."

Almost all of the 75 people who testified during the three-hour meeting last Thursday were in support of the FCC's push to gain regulatory authority over broadband services. Almost all. At the beginning of the event, Zach Segner, a 25-year-old in an "End the Fed" shirt, shouted, "The Internet's workin' fine right now!" Segner, who says he heard about the event from some members of the Tea Party, unfolded a large sign that reads "Hand off our Internet." He says that he's worried about government takeover of the Web. "I don't think that we should fall into a Chinese-style system," he says.
(Is the Google-Verizon plan bad for Net neutrality?)

The majority, however, were on the FCC's side. "Basically I'm unemployed," said a man named Doug Brown. "The Internet is a very crucial to locate job openings. And we don't need to have roadblocks to that." Jamie Taylor, who is deaf and blind, testified that that assisted technology such as video phones have allowed deaf and blind people increased accesses to the Internet. But she said that if Internet service providers are allowed to limit websites that require high bandwidth speed, the divide will increase for people with disabilities.
(See what Jim Poniewozik thinks about Net neutrality.)

Jim Haberkorn, 49, a medical-device salesman who volunteers for Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, stormed out of the meeting after having to wait through a series of pro-Net-neutrality public comments — each speaker was allotted two minutes. "This is an absolute joke," says Haberkorn, who argues FCC regulation over broadband may serve to quash freedom of speech and stifle innovation. "What's next? Are we going to say we should only have one car?" Adds Haberkorn: "The world's not vanilla. Equal access doesn't necessarily mean fair."
(See a primer on Net neutrality.)

The FCC, nevertheless, was adamant about its motives. "An open Internet is indeed the great equalizer. It enables traditionally underrepresented groups — like minorities and women — to have an equal voice and an equal opportunity," said FCC commissioner Mingon Clyburn, a Democrat. She added one of its studies showed that a greater percentage of African Americans and Latinos accessed the Internet only on their wireless phones. The location of the hearing was appropriate: the average income in this area is about $22,000, and roughly 25% of the population is Latino. Groups like Latinos for Internet Freedom were present to testify about how access to the Internet have helped members of their community find jobs and connect with family members outside the country.

Michael Copps, the other FCC commissioner on hand, blasted Google and Verizon's recent proposal. "The Internet was born on openness, flourished on openness and depends on openness for its continued success," he told the crowd. "We must not ever allow the openness of the Internet to become just another pawn in the hands of powerful corporate interests. The few players that control access to the wonders of the Internet tell us not to worry. But I am worried. How can we have any confidence that their business plans and network engineering are not going to stifle our online freedom? You know, history is pretty clear that when some special interest has control over both the content and distribution of a product or service — and a financial incentive to exercise that control — someone is going to try it."