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U.S. denominations, key Catholic bishop advocate for open Internet

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Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City responds to a question during a 2013 press conference at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' headquarters in Washington.(CNS photo /Bob Roller)
Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City responds to a question during a 2013 press conference at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' headquarters in Washington.(CNS photo /Bob Roller)

By Mark Pattison Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — More than a dozen religious bodies, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, argued in a joint letter to the Federal Communications Commission that the Internet must remain available to all without “fast lanes” and other devices meant to speed up traffic for extra revenue while keeping nonpaying traffic in a slow lane.

“We are concerned about paid prioritization and other policies that will increase costs and limit opportunities for our organizations and the communities we serve,” said the Sept. 15 letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and the other four FCC commissioners.

“We urge you to adopt the strongest protections possible to protect an open Internet and to use the strongest legal authority available so that you can eliminate paid prioritization and that these protections will survive court challenge. Robust net neutrality protections are essential for all sectors of society, including ours,” the letter said.

Also, Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Communications, advocated for an open Internet in a Sept. 16 op-ed essay.

“Access to the Internet is as essential and necessary for Americans as is access to education, news and other services that allow us to flourish and make positive contributions to society,” Bishop Wester said.

But a “two-tiered” Internet, which the FCC flirted with earlier this year, “will impair for many Americans this basic need — fast, reliable access to all Internet content,” he added. “Instead of adopting rules that permit the wealthiest companies to purchase the best service, the FCC should insist on fair treatment for everyone no matter our income.”

The churches’ letter and Bishop Wester’s essay are just two of more than a million comments sent to the FCC on the net-neutrality issue, the overwhelming majority of them urging the commission to maintain an open Internet.

In short, net neutrality is the concept that all traffic on the Internet is treated equally.

Internet service providers have in the past blocked content they suspected was violating copyright law, although some of the blocked items were in the public domain.

More recently, however, Netflix, after its customers reported slow speeds when downloading its content, has paid some Internet service providers a premium to guarantee that its movies and television programs are not bogged down on the information superhighway.

“Use of the Internet is critical in every area of religious life in the same way that it is in every other aspect of American life. Robust internet protections are vital to enable our institutions to communicate with members, to share religious and spiritual teachings, to promote activities on-line, and to engage people — particularly younger persons — in our ministries,” the multidenominational letter said.

“Without open Internet principles which prohibit paid prioritization, we might be forced to pay fees to ensure that our high-bandwidth content receives fair treatment on the Internet,” it added. “Nonprofit communities, both religious and secular, cannot afford to pay to compete with profitable commercialized content.”

The Franciscan Action Network and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men joined the USCCB in signing the letter.

Other signers included Church World Service; Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, California; the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; the Islamic Society of North America; the National Council of Churches; the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); Trabajo Cultural Caminante; the United Church of Christ’s Office of Communication and Justice and Witness Ministries; the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society; and the World Association for Christian Communication, North America.

“It is almost impossible for anyone who is trying to improve her life or to contribute to her community, to do so without access to the Internet. Knowledge is power, and for the marginalized, denial of Internet service often means being made even more powerless,” Bishop Wester said.

In the past 15 years, “digital activity outside of the workplace has become almost universal,” he added.

Bishop Wester called the Internet “an international treasure of information, creativity and human potential. It should be preserved and protected by regulation as a place that fosters the best in humankind. The FCC needs a better vision of what the Internet is and what it can do.”

Posted Sept. 17, 2014

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