You Can't Be Neutral About Net Neutrality

Voice/Posted By: 
Bruce Trachtenberg, Executive Director of the Communications Network
March 2, 2011

I’ve been practicing communications for more than three decades, but I still sometimes have to pinch myself to realize it’s not just some dream I’m having about how easy it is today to put information out there — via my blog, the Communications Network’s website or occasional emails — compared to the old days when many of us relied on old media tools, which required printing, mailing, or some kind of other physical delivery to reach our intended audiences.

I suppose that this dream-like state in which I occasionally find myself is also what lulls me into believing that the ability to post (and read) anything online is a permanent given, even an inalienable right.

Only now am I heeding warnings from some very thoughtful people that that’s also just a pipe dream.  The Internet and our access to it, as well as what we’re allowed to distribute or receive, isn’t guaranteed.  It’s why some dedicated groups and individuals have taken up the cause for “net neutrality.”  They’ve been leading a full-throated charge to make sure that Internet providers not be allowed to limit our access by charging premium rates for service or restricting what can be distributed online.

Admittedly, I’ve been slow to wake to these warnings. Perhaps I didn’t pay as much attention as I should because the phrase “net neutrality” didn’t sound any alarms.  However, the more I read and talk to others, the more I’m convinced that you can’t be neutral about net neutrality.  You have to take a position, and hopefully one that favors a system that preserves the freedom to use the Internet the way we do now.  The head-in-the sand approach or just leaving this issue for others to battle over is rife with danger.  The Internet and the access it provides to information we need and use everyday, as well as the opportunity it gives each of us, especially professional communicators, to share knowledge, connect with audiences, and support the respective missions of our organizations is not something we can afford to live without.

Obviously no one is suggesting that anyone here will do what the then authoritarian government in Egypt did recently when it found the kill switch to turn off the Internet. Still, we in this country have to take care not to fall asleep at the switch.

Right now there are reasons to be concerned.

Even though the FCC recently took steps it claims are meant to ensure net neutrality, the Media Democracy Fund (MDF), one of the most thoughtful voices in the net neutrality campaign, notes that there’s little in the regulatory agency’s decision to give anyone confidence “that the nation’s Internet service providers will be required by the new rules to supply the level of fair service needed to support a thriving open Internet.”  Instead, as the MDF says in its analysis:

Although the FCC attempted to provide some assurance that Americans’ information will continue to reliably reach its destination, and now requires companies to disclose network management policies to consumers, they leave open the possibility of economically motivated content discrimination.

Perhaps, though, an even more sinister development was the recent move by ax-wielding GOP House members to cut off all funding for any kind of FCC net neutrality regulations at all.

I suppose there’s some who might say the topic of net neutrality is best left to foundation program staff responsible for grants to support policy advocacy groups working on the issue. That would be a mistake.  The right to unfettered Internet access is something that also should concern professional foundation communicators. After all, without it, how would you do your jobs effectively?

So many foundations have moved more and more of their communications online that it’s hard to imagine how it would be possible to have effective and strategic communications if there were limits to Internet access, or  you faced a range of unfair pricing structures, or even restrictions on what providers would allow you to post.

That’s just on the distribution side. What happens if the people you want to reach can’t see or access what you are posting and pushing out?
Take either of those things away, and what do you replace them with? A hobbled, catch-as-catch can digital strategy? The old print and mail strategies?
Citing again from the recent post on the Media Democracy website:

 As the battle for a free and open Internet continues into its next phase, we have to push harder than ever for the public interest.
I would argue that’s a conversation we can’t leave exclusively to others.  We need to be part of it, too.

So what can you/we do?  For starters, get up to speed on the issue. Then look for ways to spread the word — even sound the alarm.

Below is a useful list of links on net neutrality, courtesy of MDF. They’ll tell you what you need to know and how to get involved.  Also, if you have any ideas about how to get more people to take notice, step forward, and preserve Internet freedoms, we want to hear from you.


The FCC’s New Net Neutrality Rules Make Nobody Happy
Comprehensive piece on Colorlines about the FCC’s new rules

The Internet as We Know It Is Still at Risk
Brief opinion piece by Senator Al Franken about the FCC’s net neutrality rules and what’s next.

Free the Air
Moving 1-minute video by Latinos for Internet Freedom about the need for net neutrality.



Net Neutrality Primer Video
Created by Jesse Dylan (Bob Dylan’s son), this 5 minute video features the voices of prominent Internet advocates explaining the importance of net neutrality.

Net Neutrality Myths & Facts video
Created by Media Matters, this 3 minute video dispels myths about net neutrality propagated by industry opponents.

A Guide to the Open Internet
This infographic provides a very basic explanation (with visuals!) of what net neutrality means.

Telecom Lobbying Infographic
Created by Free Press, this depicts the financial investments of the telecom industry in lobbying on net neutrality and related issues.

Bruce Trachtenberg is the Executive Director of the Communications Network, an organization dedicated to helping advance, promote, and encourage the adoption of effective communications practices in philanthropy. This piece was originally published on the Network's blog.