Who Will Step Up & Save the Internet This Time?

The ongoing battle to maintain net neutrality suffered another blow last week, when a U.S. appeals court threw out FCC rules that require internet providers to treat all internet traffic equally, opening the door for companies like Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon to give preferential treatment to certain content, while limiting or blocking access as they see fit. Critics warn that this could create tiered plans that require content providers and consumers to pay more for access to particular sites, if the provider decides to provide access to that site at all. Basically, it could end free speech on the Internet as we know it.

This is not the first time the net neutrality issue has been in the public spotlight, either. In January 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives was getting ready to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and the Senate, its counterpart, the Protect IP Act (PIPA). While most agreed with the premise of the bills, which was to address growing problem of pirating of copyrighted material such as music and movies, many argued the bills went too far, violating privacy rights and consumer protections, and putting in place draconian measures that would essentially cause sites with user-generated content to shut down.

While tech philanthropists like Evan Williams, Craig Newmark, and Mark Cuban have been strong supporters of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that been a leading proponent of net neutrality, it was the Reddit and Wikipedia communities that unleashed something more important than money in a fight like this—the collective power of the internet.

To raise awareness of the issue and stop the bills from passing, Reddit and Wikipedia “went dark”, blocking access to their own content for 24 hours so people could, as Wikipedia put it, “imagine a world without free knowledge.” Instead of getting the content that users were expecting, they were redirected to pages dedicated to the issue, and encouraged to share their views and contact their elected representatives. Before long, Google was joining in, not by preventing people from using its search engine, but by blacking out its logo, and getting more than 7 million to sign a petition. All told, more than 7,000 sites went dark, and another 105,000 raised awareness for the cause, including eBay, Mozilla, Twitter, Zynga, and even AOL, which may have mixed interests since they own internet service provider Time Warner. The campaign was a success, and the bills were tabled.

Fast forward to 2013, and the threat was now coming from a bill called the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). Again there were concerns over free speech, privacy rights, and net neutrality, and although the House did pass the bill, the President made it clear he would veto, and it was never taken up by the Senate.

Now, the battle for net neutrality has entered a new and frightening stage. The FCC may appeal the ruling, but is now fighting from behind. The money for legal fees, drafting new legislation to reestablish net neutrality, and lobbying is going to be even more important this time around.

No doubt, major players in the tech industry could end up on opposite sides here. Content providers like Facebook, Google, and Netflix probably aren’t going to want to pay a premium to ensure their content gets delivered at a reasonable speed, but on the other hand, they may be able to afford to pay the premium, giving them an advantage over smaller content providers. Internet service providers, on the other hand, are likely seeing dollar signs.

The big question now is will this ruling result in an influx of cash from folks like Cuban, Newmark, and Williams? Will venture capitalist Fred Wilson put his money where his mouth is? What about Mark Zuckerberg or George Soros?

Look for these and others to increase their support of organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others that have been on the front lines of the net neutrality issue, including Reporters Without Borders, the Constitution Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy and TechnologyFight for the FutureFree Press, the Sunlight Foundation, and TechFreedom. This will definitely be a space to watch.