To the digitally uninitiated the issue of net neutrality may seem an arcane dispute best resolved deep down somewhere in a Reddit conference folder, but for free-speech and open-access advocates, the protection of the so-called open internet has become a white-hot worry this week. In a statement released today, the U.S. bishops expressed their own reservations about how the end of net neutrality could affect what might be described as the digital common good.
“Strong net neutrality protections are critical to the faith community to function and connect with our members, essential to protect and enhance the ability of vulnerable communities to use advanced technology and necessary for any organization that seeks to organize, advocate for justice or bear witness in the crowded and over-commercialized media environment,” said Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt., chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Communications. Speaking on behalf of U.S. bishops, he urged the retention of the current open internet policies in the wake of a Federal Communications Commission draft proposal unveiled last week that would repeal those protections.
“Robust internet protections,” Bishop Coyne said, “are vital to enable our Archdioceses, Dioceses, and Eparchies, our parishes, schools and other institutions to communicate with each other and our members, to share religious and spiritual teachings, to promote activities online, and to engage people—particularly younger persons—in our ministries.”
“Without open internet principles...we might be forced to pay fees to ensure that our high-bandwidth content receives fair treatment on the internet.”
The concept of an open internet has long been called “net neutrality.” Under that digital protocol big internet service providers such as Verizon or Comcast neither favor nor discriminate against internet users or websites. Ending such neutrality could mean that internet bandwidth will be divvied up among the internet players with the deepest pockets instead of shared freely among web surfers and site publishers. Consumers could, in the end, be forced to pay extra to maintain access to services and websites they are most interested in.
“Without open internet principles which prohibit paid prioritization, we might be forced to pay fees to ensure that our high-bandwidth content receives fair treatment on the internet,” Bishop Coyne said in his statement. He argues that non-profit communities, both religious and secular, “cannot afford to pay to compete with profitable commercialized content.”
F.C.C. Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Trump administration appointee who has previously worked as a corporate attorney for Verizon, on Nov. 21 followed through on a pledge to repeal net neutrality regulations enacted under the Obama administration. The current rules treat internet service providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon as if they were utility companies that provide essential services like electricity and mandate that they give equal access to all online content and apps.
Mr. Pai argues this policy discourages investments that could provide even better and faster online access. “Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet,” Mr. Pai said in a statement. “Instead, the F.C.C. would simply require internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them.”
With three Republican and two Democratic members, the F.C.C. is expected to approve Mr. Pai’s plan at a commission meeting scheduled for Dec. 14.
Many free-speech advocates express deep concerns about Mr. Pai’s position. An interreligious advocacy group, Faithful Internet, has been pushing back against proposals to end net neutrality since 2015 and is sponsoring an online petition asking that the current proposal be abandoned. “In this critical time, we need net neutrality now more than ever to fight and defend the future of our democracy,” the group argues. “Our marches, vigils, petitions, and calls to action depend on organizing on an open Internet.”
The A.C.L.U. deplored the proposal as a “quest for profits and corporate disfavor of controversial viewpoints” that “could change both what you can see on the internet and the quality of your connection. And the incentive to monitor what you do online in order to play favorites means even more consumer privacy invasions piled on top of the NSA's prying eyes.”
And in a “Cyber Monday letter” to the F.C.C., representatives from hundreds of websites and internet-related businesses condemned the draft proposal, noting, “internet service providers will be able to favor certain websites and e-businesses, or the platforms they use to garner new customers, over others by putting the ones that can pay in fast lanes and slowing down or even blocking others. Businesses may have to pay a toll just to reach customers.”
The policy “would put small and medium-sized businesses at a disadvantage and prevent innovative new ones from even getting off the ground.” According to the letter, “An internet without net neutrality protections would be the opposite of the open market, with a few powerful cable and phone companies picking winners and losers instead of consumers.”