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Dorgan & Copps: Online Freedom Is Good for Democracy

The Internet was founded on the principle of free and open access. It has thrived on this openness to become a powerful force to expand economic opportunity, improve access to health care, advance education and foster civic discourse. The Internet is the ultimate democratic tool. Whether you are a major corporation, a concerned citizen in rural America or a small business on Main Street, anybody can go online to be heard and seen.

[IMGCAP(1)]But the continued openness of the Internet is in jeopardy.

Last month, a federal appeals court ruled against the Federal Communications Commission’s open Internet policy, telling the agency it had not proven that it had the authority to prevent Internet service providers from blocking legal content. Left unaddressed, this ruling opens the door to a two-tiered Internet, with fast lanes for those who can pay the toll and gravel roads for everyone else.

Over much of the past decade, the FCC took American consumers on a dangerous deregulatory ride that moved broadband outside the rules that had guaranteed equal access for everyone. Fortunately, the FCC can correct course by putting broadband under the set of rules where it belongs.

Technically, this means reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service. But practically, this means keeping control in the hands of consumers — rather than letting cable and phone companies decide where Americans can go online.

Our future town squares, classrooms and marketplaces will be paved with broadband bricks. They must be accessible to all — not the dominions of powerful gatekeepers. It would be a terrible irony if all of the hard-fought protections that consumers enjoy with plain old telephone service, such as privacy, truth-in-billing and rules prohibiting discrimination, were taken away in a broadband world. Without reasonable safeguards, Internet service providers will be free to favor their own content, throttle certain types of applications and block access to information at will.

The hundreds of millions of Americans who rely on broadband expect a free and open Internet, where they always have access to the legal content, applications and services of their choosing. They need the FCC as a referee to call the fouls when the free market is being manipulated.

Washington, Jefferson and Madison understood that a democracy depended on an informed citizenry, and they found ways to ensure the widest possible production and dissemination of newspapers — the broadband of its day. Technology changes, but our democratic challenge remains the same. Our citizens deserve Internet freedom. Americans require unfettered access to the marketplace of ideas in an online world. The FCC should move with Internet speed to guarantee the online freedom that is so essential to a dynamic democracy.

Sen. Byron Dorgan is a Democrat from North Dakota. Michael Copps is a member of the Federal Communications Commission.

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