5 Reasons the Future of Faith Depends on the Open Internet

jannoon028 / Shutterstock.com
jannoon028 / Shutterstock.com

Today, the Open Internet Order goes into effect. Many business owners, entrepreneurs, and economists are praising the order as a win for the economy. But there’s an unexpected voice in the chorus of praise: America’s faith leaders.

As a Christian and Sikh, we are celebrating the Open Internet Order, because the communities we serve cannot flourish today without an open and free Internet. The order codifies principles that have governed the Internet in the U.S. for decades. It keeps the Internet an open space for free speech, including religious expression.

In particular, the order bans carriers like Comcast and AT&T from blocking or slowing down websites at will – or charging websites for a faster connection to their users. If there were “fast lanes” online, most faith groups would not be able to pay the extra fees. Research shows that a slower connection speed even by 100 milliseconds causes people to click away. Left behind in the slow lane, it would be much harder for us to reach people.

That’s why we founded Faithful Internet, a place to share what’s at stake for faith communities. Here’s what we heard from America’s top faith leaders – five major reasons we defend the Open Internet Order.

1. Spiritual Life

In a time when traditional religious practice is on the decline, new generations are finding meaning and community online. “The open Internet has become essential for 21st century religious and spiritual life,” said Brian McLaren, Christian author and thinker. “People of faith are connecting, creating, praying, and organizing online.” In fact, online worship is vibrant in the United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist, and other denominations. Online communities need fast connections and high bandwidth, making them particularly vulnerable to being in the slow lane. The Open Internet Order protects the online dimension of religious and spiritual life as it continues to evolve.

2. Service.

Faith groups are central to our social safety net. They offer soup kitchens to the hungry, coat drives and blankets in blizzards, or candlelight vigils in the wake of tragedy. They need the Internet to run these services and raise money to sustain them. The order ensures that anyone with a website has an equal chance to reach people. That means that neither the corner mosque nor the mainline church will be forced to divert donations to pay for a better connection to hear and serve people in need. As Sister Simone Campbell, leader of “Nuns on the Bus,” told us: “Only through an open and free Internet can we hear the stories of those left out of our economy and outside our care.”

3. Prophetic Voice.

“As an American Muslim woman, I need the open Internet to dispel myths about my faith, tell my community’s stories, and preach courage in the face of injustice,” says Linda Sarsour, a Muslim activist. She is among a new generation of faith leaders reaching people through social media, blog posts, and online sermons. Conservative and progressive, these prophetic voices need protection. We’ve seen dangerous examples in Canada, the U.K., and Germany, where carriers – intentionally or inadvertently —slowed or blocked access to websites with content they disagreed with, including those that criticized their business practices. As FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler explained, here in the U.S., the Open Internet Order guards First Amendment freedoms online. That means prophetic leaders like Sarsour can continue speaking truth to power.

4. Innovation.

“An open Internet is freedom in action,” said Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, who leads Trinity United Church of Christ on the south side of Chicago. As a champion of innovation, he knows that faith-based entrepreneurs don’t start out with a lot of resources. New initiatives like Groundswell, State of Formation, or PeaceNext could not exist without the open Internet. If there were fast lanes, we would not be able to pay carriers extra fees for a faster connection to people, and our innovations would never have a fair chance of being seen. The Open Internet Order ensures that future innovations in religious and interfaith engagement have the opportunity to flourish.

5. Social Justice.

“An open Internet is vital for our organizing efforts in social justice, here in North Carolina and around the country,” said Rev. William Barber, leader of the Moral Mondays movement. Today, online tools are necessary to respond to all the movements of our time – from climate change to prisons, economic justice to global health. “If we had the Internet during the movement,” reflected Congressman John Lewis, “we could have done more … to build the beloved community.” The Open Internet Order empowers us to continue to wage the social justice battles of our day.

It’s no wonder that the Internet itself was the primary tool for Americans to ask the FCC to support the open Internet. Last year, we sent in more than 4 million comments online, making the vote one of the largest public interest victories in the U.S.

Yet, even as the order becomes law today, some members of Congress are trying to roll back this historic victory with new legislation, and major carriers threaten a torrent of lawsuits. That’s why people of many faiths and beliefs are telling policymakers what Internet freedom means to them on Faithful Internet.

America’s faith leaders have always been front and center in movements for justice. Internet freedom is the next frontier. For us, keeping the Internet open is not only sound policy; it is a moral imperative.

Valarie Kaur is a lawyer, filmmaker, and interfaith leader based at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. Cheryl Leanza is policy adviser of the United Church of Christ’s Media Justice Ministry. They are co-founders of Faithful Internet: www.faithfulinternet.org.

Image:  / Shutterstock.com

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