(WOMENSENEWS)–If you haven’t already heard of net neutrality, you must get up to speed. What ultimately happens with the fight for free speech on the Internet will have a direct impact on female representation in our media–and in our culture.

Only a handful of corporations own everything we read, hear and watch in the media, from news to entertainment.

And those corporations–and their holdings–are run by men. While women are 51 percent of the U.S. population, we own less than 6 percent of commercial TV and radio stations. It shows in the belittling way women are portrayed in advertising and the lack of female experts on news shows.

But thanks to the equalizing force of the Internet, women have been able to shake off the strictures of mainstream media like a tight corset and present media that more accurately reflects our perspectives and our place in society.

Women’s eNews, which is publishing this commentary, is a prime example. So are the innumerable blogs and sites where girls and women don’t have to ask male gatekeepers permission to share our opinions, comedy, art, music, stories, business ventures.

This is all thanks to the principle of net neutrality, which prevents Internet service providers like Comcast, ATandT or Verizon from blocking, discriminating against or prioritizing online content that flows over the Internet and to your computer or smartphone. Prioritizing online content could relegate some Web sites to a "slow lane" on the Internet and others to a "fast lane."

‘At Risk of Losing It’

Just as women are at the height of using the Internet as a platform to express our voices, however, we’re at risk of losing it. Without strong net neutrality protections, Web content created by and for women could be blocked or controlled by Internet service providers who want to push their own online services–and more importantly, their own representations of gender, sexuality and culture.

Think that can’t happen? It already has. In 2007, Verizon blocked pro-choice text messages from the longstanding abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America. If Congress succumbs to lobby pressure from Internet providers the Web is at risk of turning into every other medium–owned, manufactured and controlled by corporations.

Here’s how it currently works. Someone might mention to you that there is a women’s policy site on the Web called Women’s eNews. Later, at your keyboard, you might not remember the name exactly. You would enter the words "women" and "news" and the name Women’s eNews comes to the top of the search. You click through to the Web site. Easy.

But if corporations get their way, your Internet service provider could block access to the site completely or slow it down to the point that the site is unusable. That is, after you click on the site it could take ages to load or fail to load completely. Meanwhile, commercial sites trying to sell you the usual fad diet or expensive jar of makeup might load more quickly if they paid for priority treatment with major Internet service providers.

Big Companies Winning

The battle over preserving net neutrality has been raging for years. And the big companies appear to be winning.

In December, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)–the agency responsible for overseeing our nation’s communications infrastructure– passed weak, loophole-filled rules. The rules offer some limited net neutrality protections for wireline Internet, but far fewer protections for wireless Internet that you access through smartphones and other mobile devices.

Under these wireless rules, Verizon, for example, would be free to block a streaming application developed by a female-owned radio station or a radio-streaming application that featured content produced by and targeted at women.

If this wasn’t already a blow to the millions of people who have petitioned the FCC for strong Internet protections, Congress is now considering a move to overturn the rules and strip the FCC of its authority. A House committee has already voted to nullify the FCC’s rules, and the full House may vote on the resolution this week. The likelihood that such a resolution will pass the Senate is smaller, though not inconceivable.

Net neutrality really is the free speech issue of our time, and if we lose the Internet, we may never have another platform like it. Already, the FCC has given away too much.

Congress must not fail women by eroding the protections we do have and effectively muting our voices.

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Megan Tady is a blog editor and writer for the nonprofit media reform organization Free Press. She will be moderating a panel about women and media policy at the National Conference for Media Reform in Boston April 8-10.

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