Let Me Hear Your Yawp

– Free Speech, Net Neutrality, and Election 2016

I was at my desk last Tuesday when I received news that the US Court of Appeals in Washington had upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s network neutrality rules. Before issuing my “barbaric yawp” of joy, I closed my eyes for a moment of thanks. When I opened my eyes, my gaze was on a painting displayed in the Benton Foundation’s office, Jack Levine’s “Witches’ Sabbath.” Levine is best known for his satires on modern life and “Witches’ Sabbath” was his commentary on one of America’s scariest moments, the age of McCarthyism when politicians investigated citizen loyalty and threatened personal privacy.

Like you, I’ve followed the 2016 election news closely and I am very concerned with the parallels to the 1950s. Yes, candidates always perform an intricate dance with the press, simultaneously courting attention while trying to avoid scrutiny. But this year seems different. Far past avoiding inquisitive journalists, we’ve come to a place where entire outlets are banned from political events. And not just one or two publications – The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Univision, The New Hampshire Union Leader, The Des Moines Register, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Fusion, BuzzFeed News and Gawker. That list is way too big.

It is a chilling time for free speech in America. But the court’s network neutrality decision could help bring the warmth of sunlight to our election climate. The FCC rules, now upheld, mandate that Internet service providers must transmit content without blocking, degrading, or discriminating. ISPs must not tamper with content and I would stress especially not user-generated content. This is the guarantee of free speech online. This is the First Amendment for the Digital Age.

As I see it, the winners in the court decision are traditional American values: innovation, access, equity, diversity, and, most strikingly during this election season, democracy.

With the rules upheld by the court, everyone – regardless of where they live or how much they earn – will continue to benefit from the exponential innovation that has continued to drive new solutions to almost everything and everyone the Internet touches. This means that new services and applications, new processes and ideas, and the freedom to create will continue on the Internet unimpeded.

Net neutrality rules mean consumers can make their own choices about which applications and services to use and are free to decide what content they want to access, create, or share with others.

Net neutrality rules will aid broadband adoption and, therefore, help online communities become more diverse as new users seek and make available content that is relevant to their lives. This will increase: 1) the availability of media content reflecting a greater variety of perspectives and 2) the number of independently-owned content outlets. People of color, low-income consumers, seniors, people with disabilities, and rural communities are traditionally-marginalized voices that rely on the Internet as a critical — and unique — tool for communication and empowerment. Network neutrality ensures a means for these communities to dispel misperceptions and stereotypes that restrict their political, social, and economic participation. It enables them to connect with others, express their viewpoints, and obtain basic information and resources. Equal access to Internet content means equal access to opportunities that are vitally important to vulnerable populations in light of the disadvantages and discrimination they face.

At its core, net neutrality is about fairness in the way all users and creators are treated. By treating Internet traffic equally, net neutrality rules recognize that, on the Internet, we are all receivers, producers and sharers of information. Each of us has the potential and – under net neutrality rules – the ability to create the next eye-witness report, the next viral video, the next online movement.

Most importantly, net neutrality enhances our democracy. The Internet offers a forum for diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity. Due to the lack of gatekeeper control, the Internet has become a major source of news and information, which forms the basis for informed civic discourse. Many Americans now turn to the Internet to obtain news and its openness makes it an unrivaled forum for free expression.

A number of public interest advocates recently shared with both major parties a set of principles called the 2016 Internet Policy Platform. At the top of the list is free speech and the recognition that the ability to speak freely and be heard is essential to our survival as a democratic society.

So when I heard the appeals court decision, I paused to give thanks. And then I unleashed my barbaric yawp so not just my office could hear, but my street, city, and country could know that free speech lives on in the digital age.

By Adrianne B. Furniss.