By Paul Goodman

More and more, Oakland is bursting with lively, creative local businesses and artists, and the Federal Communications Commission is weighing issues that could either encourage this creative energy or help strangle it. It all has to do with the Internet and the somewhat wonky – but really quite simple – concept of net neutrality.

One of the truly great things about the Internet is the benefits it brings to local businesses.

For example, Oaklandish only has two retail stores, both in Oakland, but you can use the Oaklandish.com website to order Oaklandish gear from anywhere in the world. Oaklandish uses part of its profits to provide grants to local nonprofits. Oaklandish’s Internet presence allows it to improve our local community and economy far more that it could with just two stores – and, of course, it’s just one of many local enterprises using an online presence to expand its reach.

The Internet has been a great boon to local businesses and communities because it has historically been open and nondiscriminatory. Under net neutrality rules enforced by the FCC, Internet providers had to allow consumers to use any device and access any content on the Internet on an equal basis – you’d get the same access and same treatment whether you’re General Motors, Google or a working mom in Oakland running a home-based business. Providers were not allowed to block websites or slow down access to those websites.

Unfortunately, all of those protections could disappear.

Earlier this year, the D.C. Court of Appeals struck down those net neutrality rules, and the FCC has proposed a new set of rules that, sadly, fall very short. Under these new rules, providers can discriminate against devices, applications, and content, as long as that discrimination is “commercially reasonable.”

And what does “commercially reasonable” mean? We have no clue. The FCC hasn’t defined it, and you can bet that providers will interpret it any way they want. The FCC has also stated that it will allow “paid prioritization,” meaning providers would be allowed to “manage traffic” by picking and choosing where to slow down or stop service.

That would be really bad news for small businesses in Oakland and elsewhere.

For example, Amazon could pay providers extra so that when you access Amazon.com, you get a superfast, super-reliable connection. That would be great, except for the fact that every time a provider speeds some web traffic up, it slows the rest of the web traffic down. So while Amazon can afford to pay a bundle for superfast access to its website, a smaller, less wealthy company like Oaklandish might not be able to, and folks trying to access Oaklandish.com might experience a very slow connection or not be able to connect altogether. It’s like if the Highway Patrol decided to ease traffic on 880 by closing your onramp: The folks who could get on the freeway would get where they’re going faster, but you’d be stuck.

And it could be even worse than that, because this provides an opportunity for providers to block access to content they don’t like. For example, Comcast might block a web page listing the reasons the pending Comcast/Time Warner merger would harm communities of color – and get away with it because there’s no good way to tell the difference between a carrier that is blocking/slowing content and one that’s “managing traffic.”

This won’t just affect businesses; it will affect anyone who can’t afford to pay for the Internet “fast lane.” Communities of color already tend to have less access to the Internet, and for those who do have access, their Internet connections tend to be slower. In the absence of net neutrality protections, the situation will get even worse: Fewer people will visit small companies’ websites, fewer people will see art, video, and music that independent artists post online, and fewer activists will be able to coordinate and educate the public about important issues.

The future of the Internet depends on net neutrality rules. The Federal Communications Commission must take the necessary steps to ensure that the Internet remains an open platform for speech and education, with all of us treated equally. The path forward is clear: The FCC needs to reclassify broadband service as a telecommunications service and enact strong open internet protections that ensure a level playing field for all participants. You can ask the FCC to save net neutrality by emailing the Commission at openinternet@fcc.gov.

Oakland resident Paul Goodman is legal counsel for telecommunications issues at The Greenlining Institute, a racial justice institute that works to bring the American Dream within reach of all, regardless of race or income.  Goodman frequently posts on Greenlining’s blog at http://greenlining.org/blog/

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