Late last week, the Federal Communications Commission announced it was seeking public input on draft rules that would codify and supplement existing Internet openness principles. This was another chapter in the ongoing “Net neutrality” debate.

On one hand, the White House was calling for a “free and open Internet” and endorsed a bill called the Internet Freedom Preservation Act. Yet, at the same time, the European Union adopted a telecommunications policy that rejects these principles. Have European democracies given up on Net neutrality?

Many countries already openly violate the principle of Internet neutrality by blocking access to online publications that displease them. For example, the commander of the Iranian “special forces for moral security” said on Feb. 8, 2009 that “identifying banned websites and arresting Internet users that go on them is one of [its] responsibilities.” It was the first time the country’s police had spoken publicly about Internet censorship. The thought that European countries could enact their own forms of Internet censorship is highly troubling.

Net Neutrality in the U.S.

Net neutrality means equal access to the same Internet for all, and the right, once access has been obtained, to access whatever content is available without restrictions. No Internet company, be they an access provider or search engine, should be able to discriminate, prioritize or filter website content or information transmission. (For more on Net neutrality issues in the U.S., see this MediaShift guide.)

Net neutrality also means banning regulations that impose discretionary or arbitrary controls on bandwidth use, except when the security of the Internet or its users is threatened, or to deal with temporary technical problems. The Internet should transmit information without reference to its origin or destination. Users should be free to decide which content they want to access.

By calling for public input on draft rules to guarantee Net neutrality, the FCC is contributing to the re-establishment of civil liberties that our organization, Reporters Without Borders, is witnessing under the Obama administration. Our most recent World Press Freedom Index for 2009, which was published on Oct. 20, made note of the progress the United States had made in the last year. The country jumped 16 places thanks to the decisions made by the administration to facilitate access to information for American citizens, and in part due to the president expressing his views on the role reporters play in society.

However, when it comes to Net neutrality, mobile phone companies and Internet service providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are blocking access to peer-to-peer networks, Skype and even some newsgroups. These Internet services threaten the short-term profitability for mobile phone service operators. AT&T recently decided to allow Internet telephony applications like Skype, but only on its 3G mobile phone network.

Europe Takes a Step Backward

Reporters Without Borders is concerned about the consequences of the European Union’s adoption of its so-called Telecoms Package. In a press released published on Oct. 21, we noted that “the European Council is allowing Internet operators to haphazardly determine the use of bandwidth as they see fit.” By rejecting Net neutrality, the European Union is challenging the principle of equality.

Watch an interview with Squaring the Net, an organization dedicating to preserving Net neutrality

Non-discrimination is enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. It derives from the principle of free expression: that everyone has the equal right to express their views. Net neutrality will help secure this principle on the Internet. By moving away from Net neutrality, the EU is allowing Internet service providers and other companies to violate the principle of free expression.

(Read more about how Vodafone’s porn filter blocked innocent Czech tech blogs on its mobile web service.)

The new Telecoms Package means companies will be allowed to steer users toward content and services that have paid a premium for the privilege. It is likely that small online publications, particularly blogs, will be relegated to a second class Internet. This means that websites without financial means could disappear from the radar of many users, much to the benefit of large content providers.

The future of free speech is inextricably tied to the ways in which individuals are permitted to use the Internet. For this reason, it’s paramount that people work to advocate for Net neutrality in the United States and other countries around the world.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the “Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents,” published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.