Internet and the Public Sphere

October 21, 2008

One of the most contentious debates about the modern internet is its classification as a public sphere.  To claim the medium is a public sphere is to argue that it is an unregulated, democratic entity.  On the other hand, there are political and economic concerns that question the “public” aspect of the internet.   To be sure, the internet has emerged as a preeminent communication medium in today’s society.  Yet much remains to be decided over its qualifications as a true public forum.  (Lister, 178-180)

Compared to most other forms of media today, the internet is perceived as a non regulated medium that provides minimal obstacles to free expression.  It is used by millions in the United States for research, communication, or recreation.  As the internet has come to the forefront of American culture, so has the issue of net neutrality.  This is the debate over ownership of the internet.   The argument has been made that because the country’s biggest cable and internet providers own the hardware involved in creating an internet connection, they can reasonably affect usage practices.  This includes censoring sites or altering performance speeds as they see fit.  This has caused a revolution of sorts from many who thrive on the democratic nature of the medium.  They view the internet as serving the public good, and any regulatory interference would compromise its noteworthy achievements.   

The notion then of the internet’s purpose as public sphere poses several questions.  By definition, a public sphere should provide everyone in the society an opportunity to participate, but is that really the case in the United States?  Is the internet still a medium for the privileged, despite its widespread use today?  If so, is regulation needed to provide equal opportunity?  Does the medium have the long term prospects to maintain its democratic identity?       

In the end, the consequences of classification are paramount.  If the internet is truly a public sphere, then no company or organization can claim control.  The biggest crusader to ensure this remains the case is Save the Internet.  This grassroots organization is a culmination of some of the medium’s most prominent websites and organizations.  Their site is the central hub in the fight for net neutrality.  There, you can sign a petition, and learn of current congressional action regarding the neutrality of the internet:


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