What Would Aristotle Do?

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Go Offline Between 2-3 PM EST New Year's Day!

Go Offline On New Year's Day between 2-3 p.m. EST

How would you like to pay every time you downloaded something from You Tube or spent a while surfing the Net to find an answer to a health question you had? What if your favorite political website moved so slowly that it was near impossible to get to it? How would you like it if the only quick connections you could get were to major networks like MSNBC and FOX, and smaller news sources were inaccessible? Well this is probably only the beginning of what you can expect if we users do not put our foot down and tell the giant Internet Service Providers that we are madder than hell and not going to stand for it.

What I am talking about is the end of Net neutrality. Net neutrality means that everyone has an equal voice on the Internet and where the same information is affordable and attainable by everyone. It is what now makes the Net an incredibly free and open bastion of democracy. But this is all about to come to an end.

Here is my plea to help save Net neutrality:

On New Year's Day, between the hours of 2 and 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, we the people shall go offline to express one unified voice against the creation of a pay for priority Internet system, the abolition of a flat fee for Internet access, and any attempt by Internet service providers to block, censor or otherwise restrict legal Internet content.

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Recently, the Federal Communications Commission passed rules that fail to put a stop to the demise of the free Internet. While the FCC uses the terms "transparency," "no blocking," and "no unreasonable discrimination," these rules are based on a provision of the Telecommunication Act that "encourages" but does not forbid giant Internet service providers such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon from blocking or slowing websites and otherwise discriminating against certain content providers. In fact, these companies are now poised to create a pay for priority system, which will divide the Internet into two lanes, a fast lane and a slow lane. According to this plan, only content providers with deep pockets like MSNBC, FOX, and CNN will operate in the fast lane, which means that they will have good bandwidth or connectivity, while the rest of us will be relegated to the slow lane. From the users' side, these same companies want to abolish the flat access fee and instead charge according to the amount of time and megabits of data downloaded. This plan will mean that poorer people will have less access to information than better off people; and it will mean that none of us will continue to enjoy the robust and democratic Net that we are now accustomed to.

What presently gives Comcast and the others the legal authority to dismantle Net neutrality in these ways is a 2005 Supreme Court decision, the Brand X decision. Prior to this decision these Internet service providers were classified as common carriers. This meant that the Internet pipes through which data passed were regarded as public utilities that anyone could use. All this changed when the Court gave the FCC the right to turn these public roadways into private property; which meant that the owners had the right to restrict their use by others. If a content provider was not welcome on these private roadways, they would be trespassing and could be prevented from sending content down them.

The issue before the Court in Brand X was whether Internet service providers offered telecommunication services or information services. Essentially, this was the question of whether the Net was more like a telephone conversation or a cable TV station like Fox News. The obvious difference is that a telephone conversation is a two-way exchange of data whereas a cable news station is not interactive, and information travels from the network operator to the viewer. Clearly, the Internet is interactive and therefore more like a telephone conversation, however the George W. Bush FCC claimed otherwise.

The Court's decision in Brand X ultimately rested on one of its own prior decisions, Chevron U.S.A., which said that "if a statute is ambiguous, and if the implementing agency's construction is reasonable,...a federal court [is required] to accept the agency's construction of the statute, even if the agency's reading differs from what the court believes is the best statutory interpretation." So all the Obama FCC had to do was to reverse the Bush FCC's ruling by saying that it was more reasonable to classify Internet service providers as common carriers. Brand X gave it this legal authority, but instead the Obama FCC rested its decision on a provision of the Telecommunication Act that was little more than a recommendation and was legally unenforceable.

In fact, in April, a D.C. district appellate court found in favor of Comcast, giving it the right to slow traffic to a popular file sharing website called BitTorrent. So, without a ruling with legal teeth, this appellate court decision sets the precedent for the pay for priority system that Comcast and the other large service providers are about to institute.

Common carriage is now dead in the water, thanks to the Obama FCC, and the Internet pipes are now the private property of the giant Internet service providers who therefore have the authority to restrict and control content.

But it gets even worse. Comcast is now about to take control of NBC Universal. This means that it will soon become both gatekeeper of the Internet as well as one of the world's largest content providers. Did it not occur to the FCC that Comcast would favor its own content over its competitors and that a ruling with legal teeth was necessary? Or was this merely quid pro quo, just another back-room deal between the federal government and this giant corporation.

Consider this. In 2008 the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act was passed, which requires telecoms like Comcast to help the government conduct mass, surveillance sweeps of all electronic communications (email messages, telephone conversations, Internet searches, etc.) of all American citizens. So these companies already work for the federal government. One hand surely washes the other and it is not rocket science to suppose that the government has reason to cooperate with Comcast just as Comcast has reason to cooperate with the government.

This is all the more chilling when we suppose that a company that is working for the government is also the gatekeeper of the Internet and can control what information flows down these pipes. Unless we stop these companies from destroying Net neutrality, it is quite predictable that not before long there will be blocking of content for political reasons as well. Is a website saying anything offensive to the White House? Well then, why not block it or otherwise make it inaccessible to the public. When and if this happens, then we can say goodbye to democracy in America.

So what can we do about any of this? Not just a few activists is enough to do something about this dangerous problem. All stakeholders, which means all of us, must get together and speak in one unequivocal voice that we will not tolerate the dismantling of the free Internet.

You can go to OpenInternet.gov, which is a public forum operated by the FCC to tell the FCC that you are as mad as hell about its failure to create an enforceable set of rules for preserving Net neutrality. You can write your elected representatives or sign a petition demanding passage of legislation protecting Net neutrality. You can organize peaceful demonstrations in your communities. You can contact your Internet Service provider. In the U.S, you can contact Comcast here, AT&T here and Verizon here.

And you can join many others throughout this nation and the world to do the following:

On New Year's Day, between the hours of 2 and 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, we the people shall go offline to express one unified voice against the creation of a pay for priority Internet system, the abolition of a flat fee for Internet access, and any attempt by Internet service providers to block, censor or otherwise restrict legal Internet content.

This is very easy to do. Just one hour offline and it can cost advertisers big money and force Internet service providers to take the will of the people seriously. We all must work together and do our part, however, if this is to work.

I have carried this message on the air and the message is presently spreading across the Net. So millions of other people throughout the world are receiving this same message. This is a plea for solidarity in support of democracy. To stand by and do absolutely nothing while the free Internet is about to be dismantled is wrong. To engage in wishful thinking or denial that these companies will not carry out their plan is to live in denial. This is real. It is imminent. We must all work together to stop it before it's too late.

Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., is President of the Institute of Critical Thinking and one of the principal founders of philosophical counseling in the United States.

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