The Founding Fathers and net neutrality

11/30/2017 08:33 pm ET

The men who founded the United States supported the equivalent of net neutrality in their own day. They believed the republic could not survive if citizens lacked access to basic information. As a result, they created the Post Office and supported it wholeheartedly. The Post Office was the first major federal agency, a sign of the importance the leaders of the early republic placed on it. For more than two centuries the Post Office reached into American communities all over the United States, becoming the main point of contact many citizens had with their government. Information, in the form of letters, newspapers and periodicals, moved around the United States cheaply because the government subsidized the Post Office to ensure access to information. It did so, in fact, until very recently.

For good or ill, our current equivalent of the Post Office—the place we go to become informed and to communicate—is the internet. The importance of the internet worldwide for the sharing of information was beautifully demonstrated in the protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. At its best, the internet levels the playing field and makes democratic decision making and organizing possible. In the United States, the Postal Service is a shadow of its former self, partly because we turn increasingly to the internet to communicate , but also because Congress members who wanted to reduce the size (and popularity) of government changed the regulation of the United States Postal Service to make it more expensive and less effective. As a result of such changes, we get information most often in digital form. Information is available to those of us with access to the internet (which is becoming more widespread but is by no means universal in American society) because the government regulates internet providers to force them to allow our ready access. That regulation limits the profits of big corporations—Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and the others that are currently pushing to turn the internet into a pay-per-view sort of enterprise—and they are lobbying hard to be given the rights to control (and charge for) access. They want to limit our ability to communicate and become informed, a move the Founders would have abhorred.

The internet of course has its flaws. It is, after all, the place our current president goes to find hateful misrepresentations of Islam, which he retweets, sparking an international incident with one of our oldest allies and fueling the flames of ignorance and hostility in the United States. The Post Office had similar problems, allowing the circulation of false news along with true. Now of course bogus reports get to more ill-informed people more quickly, as cyberspace allows falsehood to be disbursed with unprecedented rapidity. Yet that flaw is not the fault of the internet any more than it was of the Post Office. That fault is ours, for our failure to consume information more thoughtful and our eagerness to accept what we read without question.

If the Founders could comprehend the internet—and that would be a major mental leap—they would oppose the disingenuously named move to “Restore Internet Freedom.” (The FCC attached this name to the effort to sell off the internet: they don’t mean our freedom but instead that of the few who we would pay to allow us to conduct a search or send an email.) The Founders would support making information, even stupid conspiracy theories and unfounded video screeds, freely available to all.

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