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Human rights – taking sides for Net Neutrality

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‘Net neutrality’ means non-discriminatory access to an open internet, and new US rules – pushed by activists – block companies from undermining this. EspañolFrançaisالعربية

Josh Levy
22 April 2015

On February 26, 2015, after millions of people rallied in favor of it, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed a set of rules that protect internet users' right to speak freely and to access information online without interruption or discrimination — a concept called Net Neutrality. These rules ensure that the  “common carriage” obligations that have been applied to telephone providers for decades, once again will apply to broadband providers. In practical terms, the FCC rules guarantee the rights to speak freely and access information online, uninterrupted and without discrimination.

“This is a real victory for freedom of expression and access to information in the United States,” said David Kaye, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. However, the internet is global and the battle is far from over. The vast majority of internet users live outside the US, in countries where broadband providers are free to slow down, block, or otherwise interfere with content. The FCC’s decision sends a message to governments around the globe that they, too, must protect the right to seek and impart information. It’s also a message to global digital rights advocates: if the US can pass such protections, so can other countries.

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Flickr/Greg Elin (Some rights reserved)

The FCC’s decision sends a message to global digital rights advocates: if the US can pass such protections, so can other countries.


For centuries, the concept of “common carriage” — the idea that transportation and communication networks must be open to all, without discrimination — has guided trade routes, railway lines, postal services, and telecommunications. Think of the postal service: we pay to send a package, and no matter who we are or whom we are sending it to, we trust that our package will arrive without being intentionally slowed down or otherwise disrupted.

Or think of phone networks: when we tap “Call,” we are connected to the person on the other end, without being charged a fee based on who we are or whom we are calling. Thanks to common carriage obligations put into place in the early 20th century, phone companies could charge extra for things like long distance calling and call waiting. They could not, however, give priority to companies who might pay more for speedier or priority connections, nor refuse people access to the service.

Early internet connections were given the same protections. But starting in 2002, company lobbyists convinced weak regulators to begin to revoke common carriage obligations for broadband providers. In subsequent years, the FCC, the agency charged with overseeing US telecoms, refused to consider Net Neutrality rules that it deemed too politically difficult to implement.

Last year, the then new FCC Commissioner, Tom Wheeler, had the chance to reverse the agency’s timid approach to internet policy. Instead, he proposed rules that would have been too weak — and too legally unsteady — to rein in companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon. Most assumed the private sector companies had won Wheeler to their position. They were determined to create an unequal (although, for them, more profitable) internet, with digital fast lanes and slow lanes.

The move is an acknowledge-ment that an open, non-discriminatory public network is vital for ensuring our rights to access information and to free expression. Fortunately, millions of US internet users fought back, telling Chairman Wheeler to scrap his proposed rules and go back to the drawing board. He did, and returned with a plan to classify broadband providers as common carriers under Title II of the US Communications Act. The move is an acknowledgement that an open, non-discriminatory public network is vital for ensuring our rights to access information and to free expression. The human rights connection seems obvious, yet in the halls of power around the world it is still politically contentious.

Chairman Wheeler is something of a historian of communication networks, and he likes to draw explicit connections between open networks and free expression. He recently said, in response to critics of the new FCC rules, that the rules are “… no more regulating the internet than the First Amendment regulates free speech in our country.”

Global Net Neutrality advocates and regional policymakers can, and should, make similar connections. The time is now: the European Union is currently weighing Net Neutrality rules via its Telecoms Single Market regulation, and in India a fight is brewing over a regulator's proposal that would fail to create Net Neutrality protections for users, and yet subject internet companies to constrictive regulation. Meanwhile, nearly 70 organizations from around the world have come together to create www.thisisnetneutrality.org, a global coalition dedicated to advancing Net Neutrality protections in every region. Such a platform is crucial as advocates from different hemispheres attempt to work together to protect basic rights around the globe.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” In the internet age, that last clause — “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media” — cannot be upheld without a guarantee that vital networks remain open and nondiscriminatory. And that means Net Neutrality, everywhere.

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