An Open Letter to My Daughters on Net Neutrality
Whenever we spend time together – and you give me grief for asking you, yet again, for help on something social media- or technology-related – I realize how freely you interact with digital technologies to consume, to share, to connect, and to learn. You and your peers are digital natives, well adapted to our new information era.
But in my job as Executive Director of the Benton Foundation, I know that behind your access to smartphones, computers, and the internet, lies a history of communications policy decisions that make it all possible.
Net neutrality is one of those seminal policies your generation needs to think about between now and November.
Net neutrality comes down to this: should your broadband provider be allowed to interfere with where you want to go and what you want to see and share on the web? Should people be able to access the information they desire, free from the dictates of a corporate intermediary?
The internet you are accustomed to was designed with net neutrality from its beginnings, and, for most of your life, the web has operated under these principles. But now that President Trump’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has repealed the net neutrality rules that were put in place in 2015, all that changes. June 11 is when the repeal takes effect.
What exactly will happen on June 11 and after? We do not know for sure. Congress is considering a “repeal of the repeal,” a court challenge is in the works, and maybe your internet service provider won’t make any changes. Maybe. But we do know that AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Charter Spectrum, and CenturyLink can now effectively manipulate your online experience, favoring some content and services over others as long as they disclose it. (Search the fine print!)
As you pursue careers in the arts, you will be part of our cultural conversation, sharing your work, learning, and finding inspiration. Comedian W. Kamau Bell noted this in a New York Times op-ed, “This fair internet, where everyone from an amateur comedian to a celebrity to a huge media company plays by the same rules, means you don’t need a lot of money or the backing of someone with power to share your content with the world.”
And if you decide to go down a different career path, you should know the ability to thrive as a tech worker, entrepreneur, or small business owner is dependent on net neutrality, which makes sure that websites and online offerings can compete openly with big money companies. In other words, innovation and competition need net neutrality to thrive.
Net neutrality also protects those who wish to speak and organize online. “The open internet uplifts the voices of people of color and racial-justice advocates, activists and dissenters of all stripes, as well as independent content creators, journalists and entrepreneurs,” said Malkia Cyril, the Executive Director of The Center for Media Justice.
Net neutrality allowed the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements to emerge and go viral. “Democracy rests on diversity of speech,” writes Jonathan Sallet, and “democratic speech rests on the belief that the consumers of speech can reach and choose freely among its providers. Constrict access and you risk further undermining the confidence consumers place in the avenues of democracy.”
There has always been a challenge to ensure all Americans can get the news and information they seek -- a challenge that has been a personal one for our family.
As you know, your great-grandfather, William Benton, was publisher of Encyclopedia Britannica. If you wanted factual information, you couldn’t just ‘Google it’. William made sure this great “index of ideas” would be available to all, even in the home. The concept was that people wouldn’t have to read through all the books to find what they wanted. They could turn to the encyclopedia for a factual primer on a variety of subjects from democracy, to astronomy, to love.
Your grandfather, Charles, and I ran a media distribution company. If you wanted to view a movie or TV program, you couldn’t just browse and stream it in the comfort of your home. You had to actually rent films (on film!) or later, buy DVDs from a retail outlet. Big budget commercial entertainment was readily available, but our company made sure people also had access to independently-produced movies, classic films, and high-quality documentaries, too.
Charles advocated for libraries and open, uncensored access to information all his life. And now it’s up to your generation to face the challenge of keeping information open and available to all.
I hope you and your peers will take a stand. In your own artistic self-interest, you need to think about how you will connect with and grow your audience in the digital age. (You have bills to pay, after all!) But in the greater public interest, we need you to act as stewards to ensure a handful of big companies don’t impede innovation, block information, or stifle culture and free speech.
Be energized and help us right the ship. Consider how your Senators and Representatives have voted on net neutrality (https://www.battleforthenet.com/) when you vote in November. Democracy, in all its messy glory, will only thrive in the digital age with an unfettered, open internet.
Adrianne B. Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Foundation.