SALT LAKE CITY — Faith leaders are among those celebrating the ongoing pushback against the Federal Communications Commission's decision to repeal net neutrality policies governing the internet.
More than 20 states and a handful of public interest groups filed lawsuits Tuesday challenging the FCC's Dec. 14 repeal, and Senate Democrats are one vote away from passing a bill that would undo the FCC's action.
Net neutrality protections were enacted in 2015 to ensure that internet service providers treated all websites equally in terms of loading speed and access. Detractors of net neutrality said the policy inhibited providers' growth and innovation, while supporters said it ensured free and open communication online.
In the weeks leading up to the FCC's vote last month, religious leaders emerged as key supporters of net neutrality, joining celebrities and Silicon Valley insiders at rallies and protests.
"Modern communications are essential for our home faith institutions, to share scripture, help neighbors, support each other and raise funds to support our work," read a letter signed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Islamic Society of North America, the National Council of Churches and eight other faith groups.
Since the FCC's decision last month, religious leaders have been circulating a petition that describes net neutrality as a moral issue. Nurturing a fair society includes protecting the open internet, although the connection between the two may be less obvious than feeding the hungry or caring for the sick, said Cheryl Leanza, a policy adviser on media advocacy for the United Church of Christ and co-founder of Faithful Internet.
"The internet has been one of the greatest levelers we've ever had," she said.
Religion and net neutrality
There are no biblical teachings on the value of an open internet. Instead, faith leaders engaged in this issue say they're inspired by a general desire to seek justice and protect the disadvantaged.
"Net neutrality is all about the fairness of the system that we use to communicate," Leanza said.
Technology experts disagree on the significance of the FCC's decision, with some arguing that the internet is already an unequal playing field.
"The reality is that big companies (already) have a privileged path into people's digital lives. They have the money and the technical ability to make sure their websites and internet videos speed through internet pipes without delays or hiccups," wrote Shira Ovide, a technology analyst, for Bloomberg.
Faith leaders side with the other camp of experts, who argue that if ISPs can charge more for higher internet speeds, websites for startup companies, nonprofits and new social justice movements could be relegated to the "slow lane" of the internet. The chief religious concern about ending net neutrality is that this shift would stifle opportunities for online innovation and interaction.
"You would have first-class content that's as easy as possible to see. For other content, you'd have to suffer through technical indignities in order to consume it," like buffering videos and pages that are slow to load, Leanza said.
Many internet users have no patience for these annoyances, so they'd start avoiding the less flashy corners of the internet. Religious leaders and other activists could struggle to start new conversations or share their message, unless they have the money for better promotion.
"Ending net neutrality would drain the lifeblood from our movements," wrote Valarie Kaur, a Sikh who co-founded Faithful Internet with Leanza, on her website.
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, an activist organization that works to integrate Catholic social justice concerns into federal policy, said she worries about creating an online world that rewards wealth instead of interesting or important ideas.
"As a Catholic, I believe that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. Everyone's voice matters," she said.
The internet has played a meaningful role in faith communities since its creation, enabling relationships with faraway people in need and encouraging transformation, Sister Campbell added. She supports net neutrality because it enables all forms of faith and spirituality to flourish.
"The internet has become a key vehicle for developing our faith," she said.
Sister Campbell acknowledged that her activism in support of net neutrality is driven by more than religious convictions. She has a professional stake in an open internet, like many other leaders of faith-based nonprofits and members of the clergy.
"As an organization, we depend on net neutrality to communicate with our members across the country," she said.
Churches use their websites to provide information to potential visitors, update congregants on upcoming events and recruit volunteers, according to a new survey from LifeWay Research. Around one-third allow online donations.
This outreach could suffer if the FCC's December decision stands. ISPs are expected to create new pricing structures related to internet speeds, forcing organizations to pay more to ensure their sites load smoothly.
"There doesn't seem to be a nonprofit exception," Sister Campbell said.
Bishop Christopher Coyne, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Communications, addressed the ramifications of this shift in a statement released Nov. 28.
"We might be forced to pay fees to ensure that our high-bandwidth content receives fair treatment on the internet. Nonprofit communities, both religious and secular, cannot afford to pay to compete with profitable commercial content," he said.
Again, it's unclear if and when higher fees will be implemented. ISPs may be wary of angering consumers with bigger price tags, as USA Today reported last month.
However, it's still safe to say that the FCC's decision will disrupt the internet as we know it, including for churches, Leanza said. She hasn't given up hope that the repeal will be reversed, whether through congressional action or the court system.
Democrats in the Senate are one Republican vote away from passing a bill undoing the FCC's decision, but it's unlikely the legislation will make it through the House or gain President Donald Trump's support, according to Recode. Additionally, Congress has its hands full this week passing a spending bill.
Despite these challenges, Leanza said she's optimistic about the future of net neutrality, noting that interest in ensuring an open internet has risen dramatically since she first got involved in the issue in the late 1990s.
"We're in a long game," she said.