Perhaps the greatest freedom in a democracy is freedom of speech. Throughout our nation's history, people have died fighting not only for our right to speak, but for our right to be heard.
The Internet is the greatest communications network ever created because it allows us to speak for ourselves without first asking permission from corporate gatekeepers. This is possible because of the principle called Net Neutrality, which prevents Internet service providers from discriminating against content online.
But Net Neutrality and the open Internet may be in serious trouble. Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has been holding closed-door meetings with Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Google that could pave the way for a corporate takeover of the Internet by curtailing our ability to speak online.
The big phone and cable companies want to kill Net Neutrality so they can control and manipulate the content you can access on the Internet. Those who can pay will have their websites sped up; those who can't will have their sites slowed down.
Guess who'll be able to pay that extra cost? The big corporations. Meanwhile, the small guy will be pushed to the digital margins.
During his campaign, President Barack Obama pledged he would "take a back seat to no one" in his support for Net Neutrality.
President Obama is a powerful example of why an open Internet strengthens our democracy. It's unlikely that he would have become our nation's first black president without an open Internet.
"One of the reasons that I won the presidency was because we were able to mobilize young people ... to get involved through the Internet," Obama said during a visit to China last November. "Initially, nobody thought we could win because we didn't have necessarily the most wealthy supporters; we didn't have the most powerful political brokers. But through the Internet, people became excited about our campaign and they started to organize and meet and set up campaign activities and events and rallies. And it really ended up creating the kind of bottom-up movement that allowed us to do very well."
A Toothless FCC
Has President Obama lost his appreciation for the power of the open Internet? The FCC, our nation's communications watchdog agency, is currently trying to modernize its broadband policy framework, and it appears that Chairman Julius Genachowski, an Obama appointee, lacks the conviction to protect our Internet freedom against a corporate power grab.
There's no question Genachowski is under immense pressure from the phone and cable industry and its lobbyists to turn over control of the Internet to companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. But if he can't stand up to corporate pressure to do his job of protecting the public, then he never should've accepted the job in the first place.
Shouldn't we expect nothing less of the FCC chairman? Shouldn't he be fighting for those whose voices are not represented by powerful business interests in Washington? Do their voices matter?
Millions of people from all walks of life had a great deal of hope that the Obama FCC would be different from previous commissions that seemed beholden only to their corporate benefactors. They believed that candidate Obama -- and Chairman Genachowski, who drafted the campaign's technology platform -- would keep the promise to protect the public from predatory corporate practices.
But too many of our elected and appointed officials, as well as their staff, follow the money, regardless of the administration in power. Many are more concerned about lining up a lucrative job after they leave government than about fighting to improve the lives of everyday people while they're in office. And in Washington, you can make a great living by undermining policies that serve the needs of the public.
Selling out the Public
The Sunlight Foundation reported this week that 72 percent of the lobbyists hired by AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the U.S. Telecom Association -- the leading opponents of Net Neutrality -- have previous government experience. This figure includes 18 former lawmakers and 48 former Hill staffers who worked for the House and Senate commerce committees that provide congressional oversight of the FCC.
The Center for Responsive Politics reports that these companies spent more than $20 million lobbying the federal government during the first quarter of 2010 alone. Many of these lobbyists enjoy a direct line to decision-makers in Congress and at the FCC. Glance at a list of the top staffers working on telecommunications just a few years ago and you'll find name after name now representing industry, unconcerned about advocating for positions they used to oppose.
Despite the corporate power grab, President Obama and Chairman Genachowski still have the power to do the right thing. What the American people want is someone to stand up and fight for them against the harm caused by corporate corruption -- whether from BP, AIG or Comcast. And time and again, we have seen government regulators who have abandoned their responsibilities to protect the public.
It's hard to believe that history might record that it was the Obama administration that conspired with industry to allow for a corporate takeover of the Internet. That would be an unfortunate legacy for the first "Internet" president.