Net neutrality is essential for a healthy democracy

(Photo credit: Herkie/Flickr)

It was an amazing week in Washington for those who believe in the cause of net neutrality. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler announced his plan, with the support of President Obama, to implement strong net neutrality rules using the authority granted to the agency under Title II of the Communications Act. In a relatively short period of time, the issue of net neutrality has gone from a protracted, contentious debate to a conversation where a positive outcome seems within grasp. This is a major step forward in ensuring that the Internet remains an open, neutral platform for everyone.

Net neutrality is often defined as a consumer issue, invoking the threat of big phone and cable companies interfering with customers streaming Netflix, or blocking legal downloads of music because of so-called bandwidth concerns. But it’s also a democracy issue. Net neutrality at its core means that anyone can go wherever they choose on the Internet without interference from their Internet service provider. It means an equal playing field for everyone and every use, without fast lanes for companies who can pay more to speed up their content while slowing yours down.

Our view at the Sunlight Foundation is that net neutrality is essential for people’s ability to participate in the public debate, journalists’ ability to hold our leaders accountable and government’s ability to share data and information. The Internet is the ultimate form of civic technology. It’s a shared space for civic participation, information sharing, building networks and organizing community. So for many of us, preserving the Internet’s open architecture is essential to the health of our democracy.

National organizations like the Sunlight Foundation, the Center for Responsive Politics and Code for America, along with local organizations like Abre Puerto Rico, Detroit Ledger and Smart Chicago, use the Internet to help transform the era of big data into the era of big engagement. We all build tools and apps that enable people to decipher our government and politics, help governments better serve the public, assist journalists as they work to expose the truth and help activists solve problems in their communities.

These and so many more organizations and individuals are creating new ways of enabling participation in — and across all levels of — our democracy. Strong net neutrality protections will ensure that we can continue to reach people in innovative ways and help them interact with each other, with their communities and with their governments. There is little doubt that in a world of Internet “fast-lanes,” the growing field of civic tech would be the loser. Those of us who intensively use data and technology as a tool for improving our democracy would be relegated to the shoulder of the road while expensive entertainment content roared by.

So we celebrate the shift that we’ve just seen and salute the many organizations who fought hard for this outcome. The fight isn’t over yet, and it is more true in Washington than any other city that the devil is indeed in the details. But it’s worth remembering that just a few months ago we were contemplating a world with weak rules, set on precarious legal footing, that would have put the Internet service providers in the driver’s seat. Those of us who use the Internet as a tool to promote democracy and civic participation would have been left behind.

While the deal isn’t done, the conversation has been reframed in way that will preserve the principle of nondiscrimination that is the bedrock of the Internet that we all use. That’s certainly good for consumers, but it’s even better for our democracy.