03/21/2012 11:15 am ET | Updated May 21, 2012

A "Separate But Equal" Internet?

The phrase "knowledge is power" dates back to at least the seventeenth century, and it's as true today as it was then. But today, technology has become the essential portal to information, and information technology has 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.

There is a real danger we could let ourselves slip into a sort of "separate but equal," segregated Internet, as my colleagues in The Greenlining Institute's telecommunications team explain in their new report, "Saving the Open Internet: The Importance of Net Neutrality."

There are a lot of misconceptions about net neutrality. For example, some on the far right would have you believe that net neutrality is code for government control of the Internet. 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.

In short, net neutrality simply preserves the free, open Internet we know and depend on today.
But is that free and open Internet really in danger? In a word, yes. In one particularly egregious example, a few years ago Verizon blocked text messages from NARAL Pro-Choice America on the grounds that it had the right to block "controversial or unsavory" communications. After howls of public outrage, the company backed down, but the threat of censorship remains.

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.

Of particular concern is the wireless field, where the FCC's efforts to preserve net neutrality have been weakest. This weakness especially threatens communities 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. Congress could solve the problem instantly by passing legislation such as S 74, proposed last year. This bill would provide the FCC unquestioned authority to maintain a free Internet. Without federal action to preserve net neutrality, any of us could be forced into the slow lanes of the information superhighway.