Perhaps the greatest freedom in a democracy is freedom of speech. Throughout our nation’s history, people have died fighting not only for our right to speak, but for our right to be heard.

The Internet is the greatest communications network ever created because it allows us to speak for ourselves without first asking permission from corporate gatekeepers. The Internet’s importance as a forum for speech is the result of the principle called net neutrality, which prevents the phone and cable companies that provide Internet service from discriminating against content online or interfering with the free flow of Internet traffic.

But net neutrality and the open Internet may be in serious trouble. Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has been holding closed-door meetings with Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and Google that could pave the way for a corporate takeover of the Internet. The big phone and cable companies want to kill net neutrality so they can control and manipulate the content you can access on the Internet. Those who can pay will have their websites sped up; those who can’t may have their sites slowed down or even blocked.

Guess who’ll be able to pay that extra cost? The big corporations. Meanwhile, the small or startup business or the new nonprofit organization will be pushed to the digital margins.

The FCC, our nation’s communications watchdog agency, is currently trying to modernize its Internet policy framework. Unless it succeeds, the phone and cable companies will be free to censor us online, block the websites we want to see, and track the websites we visit without disclosing their practices. The agency is under immense pressure from the lobbyists to take control of the Internet away from Internet users and turn it over to corporations.

The Center for Responsive Politics reports that these companies spent more than $20 million lobbying the federal government during the first quarter of 2010 alone. Many of these lobbyists enjoy a direct line to decision-makers in Congress and at the FCC. Glance at a list of the top staffers working on telecommunications just a few years ago, and you’ll find name after name now representing industry, unconcerned about advocating for positions they used to oppose.

The Sunlight Foundation reported that 72 percent of the lobbyists hired by AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and the U.S. Telecom Association–the leading opponents of net neutrality–have previous government experience. This figure includes 18 former lawmakers and 48 former Hill staffers who worked for the House and Senate commerce committees that provide congressional oversight of the FCC.

The FCC has the power to do the right thing. What the American people want is someone to stand up and fight for them against corporate corruption–whether from BP, AIG or Comcast. It needs to protect the Internet from a corporate takeover.

Joseph Torres is a senior adviser for government and external affairs at Free Press.

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