WASHINGTON (May 24, 2006) — Saying the Internet is "a critical medium for religious speech," the Chairman of the Communications Committee, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) urged legislation to prevent companies which control the infrastructure connecting people to the Internet from interfering with the content which is distributed.
"Unless there are in place protections against Internet access providers' control over content, noncommercial religious speech on the Internet is threatened," said Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas in a letter sent (May 23) to the House of Representatives.
Bishop Kicanas urged that such protections, termed "net neutrality requirements," be included in the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act ("COPE Act"). As approved by the House Subcommittee, the COPE bill lacks net neutrality protections.
"Those protections have particular importance for religious organizations which must rely on the Internet to convey information on matters of faith and on the services they provide to the public," Bishop Kicanas said. "The Internet is an indispensable medium for distributing USCCB's views on matters of public concern and on its religious teachings. The Internet was constructed as a unique medium without the editorial control functions of broadcast television, radio or cable television. The Internet is open to any speaker, commercial or noncommercial, whether or not the speech is connected financially to the company providing Internet access, whether it is popular or prophetic," he said. "Those characteristics make the Internet critical to noncommercial religious speakers," Bishop Kicanas said.
"That open environment, however, is threatened by a lack of response by Congress to the recent decision by the FCC to end the decades-old regulatory regime which fostered the unique freedom and openness of the Internet," he continued. "When the FCC classified cable broadband service (and later telephone broadband) as an 'information' service, it ended more than thirty years of regulation which prohibited the companies which control the infrastructure connecting people to the Internet from interfering with the content distributed on the Internet. Unless Congress requires telephone and cable companies to act as neutral providers of Internet access, as they had been required to do since the birth and through the spectacular growth of the Internet, those companies will use their control over internet access to speed up or down connections to Web sites to benefit themselves financially."
At the present time, radio, broadcast television and cable television are largely closed to religious messages, Bishop Kicanas noted. "Years of deregulation and growing consolidation of the media industry have inevitably led to a hostile environment for noncommercial religious voices in broadcasting, whether in the form of short Public Service Announcements, programs on religious themes, news coverage of religious events, or local public affairs programs featuring representatives of local religious organizations. If the Internet becomes, as it inevitably will without strong protections for net neutrality, a medium where speakers must pay to deliver their messages, religious speech will be effectively barred from the Internet," Bishop Kicanas said.
The Bishop noted that Pope Benedict XVI, in a message for the 40th World Communications Day (2006), warned against the "distortion that occurs when the media industry becomes self-serving or solely profit-driven, losing the sense of accountability to the common good…"