On July 15, the FCC will begin reading public comments on proposed changes to rules affecting the open internet. Below we have republished our article from March, when we examined how the principle of net neutrality affects writers.
Why should you care about net neutrality as a writer? The term net neutrality sounds blasé and technical, but that is more of a problem with branding than the principles that the term espouses. Because as a writer you should really want it. Yes, you should get excited about being neutral. It's why PEN signed on to an important letter by a coalition of free expression groups to protest a ruling by a federal appeals court.
To understand why net neutrality is good for writers, it's helpful to think of the post office. When you mail a letter by first class mail, the post office guarantees delivery. And it guarantees delivery no matter what writing is contained in your letter. The post office is delivering your mail neutrally.
Now, if the post office was not required to do this, as a common carrier, postal workers could slice open your mail and look inside. If they found something objectionable--you wrote a screed about the stupidity of post office workers, for example--they could decide to slow down your delivery or, if they really didn't like it, they could decide not to deliver the letter at all.
But those who pay extra for priority mail don't affect the budget-friendly first class service. In contrast to mail service, according to Free Press, the internet is zero sum game: giving priority to certain information--by those who can pay more--necessarily slows down the rest of the net for other users.
A federal court's controversial ruling in January reveals that this frightening scenario may soon come true. Information passing over the net used to be treated neutrally. Your work as an online writer was guaranteed to be delivered in the same way as a company such as Exxon Mobil in reaching its end destination. After the FCC's ruling, the companies providing the backbone of the internet no longer have to guarantee neutral delivery. This means that these companies can decide not to deliver your writing and make sure Exxon Mobil's writing is delivered lightning fast. The situation becomes even more troubling if you are in the business of writing critical speech. The company could choose not to deliver your information by inspecting the packets that travel over the net and decide, based on your content, not to deliver them. This is extremely dangerous for free expression and critical dissent, a cornerstone of democracy.
These are giant companies. Comcast, for example, owns NBC Universal and may soon merge with Time Warner Cable. These conglomerates have vast and varying objectives, and it will serve their interests to make sure that information that travels over their networks is favorable to their bottom line. Why should they deliver your investigative piece criticizing their business practices? Without net neutrality, they do not have to. Indeed, Verizon, one major provider of internet infrastructure, argued in 2012 that it was the equivalent of a newspaper that could make editorial decisions.
We need to keep freedom of expression alive by preventing such companies from serving as the editors of the internet. That's why we signed onto a letter by a coalition of free expression organizations calling for FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to take practical action to preserve net neutrality. It's time for writers to get angry. Sometimes you have to fight to be neutral.
Update: This post has been changed to reflect that PEN signed the coalition letter in March 2014.