By Sarah Aird, member of Amnesty International USA’s Board of Directors
Amnesty International activists know how important the Internet is for sharing news, information, and strategy about human rights abuses around the world. From satellite images of Darfur to Amnesty reports documenting Shell Oil’s involvement in human rights abuses in the Niger Delta, from correspondence among Amnesty’s country specialists to online urgent actions in support of Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the Internet is critical to our work. But today, the Internet as we know it is at risk.
In the last 15 years the Internet has become the most democratic communications tool ever created. In the United States, the Internet is an open network, meaning no company or government body has centralized control over the free flow of information. Yet today we’re facing what has the potential to become one of the greatest threats to the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Amnesty International and to free speech and democracy in this country – corporate control of the Web.
From its creation, the Internet in the United States operated under the principle of Net Neutrality, which guarantees that all sources of data are treated equally, whether the content comes from FOX News or Amnesty International. Foreign and domestic sites, big corporate home pages and low-traffic blogs are all equally accessible to the Internet user. This has ensured that activists and NGOs of all shapes and sizes are able to bring important stories to light and help shape the political agenda.
For years, large Internet and telecommunications companies have sought to dominate the Internet, and since 2002 they’ve had growing success in reversing Internet nondiscrimination principles. They would like to see a tiered Internet in which some content providers pay a toll to speed delivery of their data, at the expense of others’ (“paid prioritization”).
Since not all content providers will be able to pay such a toll, the result will be a super access highway for websites of large corporations and the wealthy and a winding dirt road for others. Major news outlets will, for example, be able to pay the toll; visitors to their site will not experience delays or access difficulties. Will we be able to say the same about Amnesty Group 133’s site?