In 2007, President Obama campaigned on the promise that he would "take a back seat to no one" in his support of Network Neutrality, the principle that stops Internet service providers from deciding which websites load fast, slow, or not at all. But if the press reports this week are accurate, the President and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski are preparing to exit the back seat and jump out of the car altogether.
Last month, a federal appeals court ruled that the FCC, due to some terrible decisions made during the Bush administration, no longer has the authority to regulate broadband providers. That means the FCC can't pass Network Neutrality rules, or even implement much of its National Broadband Plan, including programs to increase Internet adoption in poorer communities.
Conservatives and broadband providers hailed this decision as the end of Network Neutrality. But the story is not quite so simple. The truth is that the FCC still has the power to reverse the rejected reasoning of the Bush years, to re-establish its legal footing, and to protect the public interest.
It can do this by "reclassifying" broadband under the law as a "telecommunications service." This simple step would protect Internet users and give the give the agency the power it needs to close the digital divide. And whether Genachowski takes this step is not a question of legality -- it's one of political will.
Despite having broad public support, Genachowski seems unwilling to make the necessary moves to reassert the commission's legal authority, fearing an all-out war with the big phone and cable companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.
The telecom companies are fighting against Network Neutrality regulations because they can make greater profits acting as gatekeepers online. If they succeed, the Internet would become more like radio and TV: a few major corporations would control which voices are heard. It would be much more difficult for grassroots groups, individuals and small businesses to create their own online presence and compete with large corporations and well-funded special interests.
Forgoing reclassification will mean the FCC will not be able to enforce Net Neutrality protections. If Genachowski fails to re-establish his authority, companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon could block any website or online content, at any time and for any reason, and there's nothing the FCC could do to prevent that from happening.
Failing to protect the open Internet would be a devastating blow to millions of Obama's supporters, including many people of color, who for too long have been marginalized by the mainstream media but have newfound hope in an open Internet that allows them to speak for themselves and advocate on behalf of their own communities.
For the first time in history, the Internet has allowed African-Americans to communicate with a global audience -- for entertainment, education or political organizing -- without prohibitive costs or mediation by gatekeepers in government and industry. That's how ColorOfChange.org became successful: because of the low cost of communicating online, we could start small and grow without spending a lot of money. The strength of our ideas, not the size of our budget, determined our success.
This is why more than 53,000 members of ColorOfChange.org called on the FCC to support Network Neutrality and urged the commission to take action to reclassify broadband and protect Internet users.
We believe the President should understand this as well. Is there anyone who doubts that an open Internet is a major reason why our nation elected its first black president?
In the last year, we have learned a lot about our President. When he decides to step up and be the leader we believed in, he is able to make transformative things happen. When he stands back and lets others drive policy, the results can be disappointing, or worse.
This is the crossroads at which President Obama now stands: he and his FCC chairman can get into the driver's seat, and implement broadband policies that include all Americans; or he can accept the limited purview the courts are suggesting, and let a few greedy corporations decide whose messages are worth hearing.
Our question to the President is straightforward: Mr. President, are you ready to take the wheel?