The Fight Over Net Neutrality Goes to the Inner City

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Jim Wilson / The New York Times / Redux

A group of people gather outside Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to protest the company's decision to join with Verizon in proposing that Net-neutrality rules should not apply to wireless access

It's not often that the faces behind the federal government show up at places like South High School in the Corcoran neighborhood of Minneapolis, one of the city's poorest and most racially diverse sections. Especially to talk about the Internet, of all things. But this is where the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held its first public hearing on Net neutrality, the idea that all legal online data should be treated equally by service providers. In the weeks since Google and Verizon submitted a proposal that would not preserve Net neutrality for wireless Internet platforms like the iPhone, the issue has grown into a contentious one. In a brief speech before the public comment period, Minnesota Senator Al Franken called Net neutrality the "First Amendment issue of our time."

Almost all of the 75 people who testified during the three-hour meeting on Aug. 19 were in support of the FCC's push to gain regulatory authority over broadband services. At the beginning of the event, however, Zach Segner, a 25-year-old wearing a shirt with the words "End the Fed," shouted, "The Internet's workin' fine right now!" Segner, who said he heard about the event from members of the Tea Party, unfolded a large sign that read "Hand off our Internet." He said he's worried about a government takeover of the Web. "I don't think that we should fall into a Chinese-style system," he said.

But the majority of the people were on the FCC's side. "Basically, I'm unemployed," said a man named Doug Brown. "The Internet is very crucial to locate job openings. And we don't need to have roadblocks to that." Jamie Taylor, who is deaf and blind, testified that assisted technology like video phones have given deaf and blind people increased access to the Internet. If Internet service providers were allowed to limit websites that require high bandwidth speed, she said, the divide would increase for people with disabilities.

Jim Haberkorn, 49, a medical-device salesman who volunteers for Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, stormed out of the meeting after having to wait through a series of pro-Net-neutrality public comments — each speaker was allotted two minutes. "This is an absolute joke," said Haberkorn, who argued that FCC regulation over broadband may serve to quash freedom of speech and stifle innovation. "What's next? Are we going to say we should only have one car?" Adds Haberkorn: "The world's not vanilla. Equal access doesn't necessarily mean fair."

The FCC, nevertheless, was adamant about its motives. "An open Internet is indeed the great equalizer. It enables traditionally underrepresented groups — like minorities and women — to have an equal voice and an equal opportunity," said FCC commissioner Mingon Clyburn, a Democrat. She added that one of its studies showed that a greater percentage of African Americans and Latinos accessed the Internet only on their wireless phones. The location of the hearing was appropriate: the average income in this area is about $22,000, and roughly 25% of the population is Latino. Groups like Latinos for Internet Freedom were present to testify about how access to the Internet helped members of their communities find jobs and connect with family members outside the country.

Michael Copps, the other FCC commissioner on hand, blasted Google and Verizon's proposal. "The Internet was born on openness, flourished on openness and depends on openness for its continued success," he told the crowd. "We must not ever allow the openness of the Internet to become just another pawn in the hands of powerful corporate interests. The few players that control access to the wonders of the Internet tell us not to worry. But I am worried. How can we have any confidence that their business plans and network engineering are not going to stifle our online freedom? You know, history is pretty clear that when some special interest has control over both the content and distribution of a product or service — and a financial incentive to exercise that control — someone is going to try it."