I didn't know the woman on the other end of the line. She was calling from Spain through Skype, a software program that allows people to make free phone calls over the internet, looking for someone with a similar name. Instead of hanging up, we kept chatting. Our spontaneous conversation ranged from politics and relationships to children and Spanish cuisine.
Having the ability to make a free long-distance call on the internet helped connect two people from different cultures. It may also prove to be foundational for a new media democracy.
While the internet will never completely alleviate the problems of Big Media or a society evermore saturated with commercial messages, it does remain a space of hope and possibility. There is something incredibly powerful about a communications network that allows average people to connect directly with each other, relatively independent of corporate or government filters.
An open internet provides an alternative to traditional corporate media and gives a new generation of budding media activists a tangible notion of what a truly democratic media system might look like. Just as importantly, the internet also provides a platform from which we can launch counter-attacks on the existing corporate media system.
But the internet is under siege by the very companies that bring it into our homes and workplaces. Big Telecom corporations, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), are threatening to pull away from "net neutrality," the guiding rule that preserves a free, open and non-discriminatory internet. Net neutrality mandates that ISPs provide a neutral, and thus open, network for people and organizations to publish media and communicate freely. If ISPs defy net neutrality, without repercussion, we could end up with a much more centralized communications network.
"Without net neutrality, the internet would start to look like cable TV," wrote Lawrence Lessig and Robert W. McChesney in a Washington Post op-ed. "A handful of massive companies would control access and distribution of content, deciding what you get to see and how much it costs … We would lose the opportunity to vastly expand access and distribution of independent news and community information through broadband television."
Big Telecom wants to become the gatekeeper of the internet. They hope to put themselves in charge of how fast websites load and media content flows. This scheme would lead to a kind of two-tier internet where well-endowed big media enterprises and ISPs would have access to the fast lane of the internet, while the independent media would be stuck in the slow lane.
Net neutrality has become a rallying cry for a new generation of media activists. A new media democracy movement is spawning from these Big Telecom acts of aggression, and the movement is having a surprising level of success.
In the US, a coalition of consumer and public interest groups calling itself ‘SavetheInternet.com' launched a campaign to protect net neutrality. The coalition has grown to include 850 organizations spanning the political spectrum. This grassroots groundswell of activity led to an unprecedented 1.5 million Americans contacting their representatives, urging them to support net neutrality. Canadian activists soon followed suit and were able to push net neutrality from obscurity to a hotly debated issue with the launch of a diverse SaveOurNet.ca coalition. The net neutrality battle is shifting against the monopolistic ISPs.
The assault on our internet makes it clear that we cannot trust Big Telecom to manage such an important resource. It also marks the rejuvenation of the media democracy movement. The prospect of losing open communication has galvanized people in several countries and will be the nexus for a growing global media democracy movement.
We pay ISPs for access to the content and communication of our choosing. Now that we have had a taste of open communication, we will not go back to a pre-selected, prescribed menu of media choices. Our demand is simple: Give us access to an open internet.