Recently the issue of net neutrality became a prominent topic once again for politicians to debate. This has been caused in large part due to a recent 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. to overturn net neutrality by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). It seems that many people have an opinion but do not really understand what net neutrality is. From a political level it has become a partisan issue; recently Senator Ted Cruz stated “net neutrality is the Obamacare for the Internet”. The purpose of this ethics paper is to examine exactly what net neutrality is, to sort through the political rhetoric and identify whether or not it should be supported or opposed from a Christian ethical perspective.
The definition of net neutrality is “an Internet which is completely neutral with respect to content and users, has no gatekeepers, and enables users to access every site, provider, application, program, etc. whenever desired. The concept also contemplates that there is only one playing field and it is perfectly even; no one company can stop the user from gaining access to the information sought at the point in time when access is desired.” Net neutrality has been a principal that has been in effect since the founding of the Internet. The FCC has enforced net neutrality and they site the rulings of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the Communications Act of 1934 as their authority to do so. In 2014 two portions of the FCC regulations were overturned because the Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) are not currently labeled with a common carrier status. This dealt great harm to the principle and made it unenforceable. This resulted in for the first time in the history of the Internet a time where the ISP was not bound by the regulating principles found within net neutrality. The court also agreed with the FCC that broadband providers represent a threat to Internet openness and could hinder future Internet development without at least rules similar to those in the FCC Open Internet Order 2010. It is likely to be a political issue that will be discussed heading into the 2016 presidential election. President Obama has stated
“Net neutrality” has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation — but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.
When I was a candidate for this office, I made clear my commitment to a free and open Internet, and my commitment remains as strong as ever. Four years ago, the FCC tried to implement rules that would protect net neutrality with little to no impact on the telecommunications companies that make important investments in our economy. After the rules were challenged, the court reviewing the rules agreed with the FCC that net neutrality was essential for preserving an environment that encourages new investment in the network, new online services and content, and everything else that makes up the Internet as we now know it. Unfortunately, the court ultimately struck down the rules — not because it disagreed with the need to protect net neutrality, but because it believed the FCC had taken the wrong legal approach.
The FCC is an independent agency, and ultimately this decision is theirs alone. I believe the FCC should create a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online. 
The FCC has stated that it will not make a decision regarding net neutrality until 2015. It is helpful to understand how the Internet currently works and how it will work without net neutrality.
The below diagram is a diagram provided by the Washington Post that illustrates how the Internet has worked under net neutrality.
Max Ehrenfreund from the Washington Post states
This diagram is an idealized depiction of how the “classic” Internet of the late 1990s worked. Backbone Provider B provides Internet service to Yahoo, carrying traffic to users around the world. Provider B connects with other companies, such as Backbone Provider A. The residential ISP on the right is a customer of Backbone provider A, and it, in turn, offers Internet access to individual households. The red arrows indicate who pays whom for service. Because the two backbone providers are roughly the same size, they engage in what’s called “settlement-free peering”: They exchange traffic with each other with no money changing hands.
A big advantage of this industry structure is that the backbone market is competitive. If Backbone Provider B overcharges Yahoo for connectivity, Yahoo can switch to another backbone provider. I’ve only drawn two backbone companies, but in the real world there were a number of them competing with one another. The fact that the largest backbone providers engage in settlement-free peering ensures that every computer on the Internet can reach every other computer. Competition among backbone providers helps keep prices down and service quality up. 
This is contrasted with the new diagram.
Ehrenfreund goes on to explain how this affects the ISP’s.
In this version of the Internet, two big things have changed. First, Netflix is really big. The video streaming site now accounts for about 30 percent of all traffic on the Internet. Second, Verizon acquired the formerly independent backbone provider MCI in 2006, helping to turn itself into a major backbone provider in its own right.
Those changes matter for Cogent’s negotiations with Verizon. In the first chart, Backbone Provider A’s leverage was limited by the fact that Backbone Provider B could always connect directly to the residential ISP, potentially costing A a customer. That gave A a strong incentive to keep its network fast and its interconnection terms reasonable.
The negotiation between Cogent and Verizon is different. Verizon plays the role of both backbone provider and residential ISP. That puts Verizon in a much stronger negotiating position, because Cogent doesn’t have any practical way to route around Verizon. If Cogent wants to reach Verizon’s customers, it needs to cut a deal with Verizon.
The dilemma that this has caused needs to have some clarity and to identify what is at stake and who stands to gain from this change, as political gesturing will certainly misrepresent the issue as a whole.
The issue of net neutrality being removed is a multifaceted reality. On one side you have the ISP’s who are providing goods and services to business and individuals. They argue that net neutrality prevents them from their right to charge fair market prices to these companies. They insist this limits their ability to make the capitol necessary for investing in future technologies along with maintaining their current infrastructure. They want to be able to charge companies a fee for premium service and speeds. They insist this would not result in any discrimination but would allow companies to purchase premium service (increased speeds) at an agreed upon price.
The other side of the coin is that this would do two things; it allows the ISP’s to give an advantage to companies who can afford their surcharge. It has the possibilities to make start up companies unable to compete with the established market place that has deeper pockets. It also would give the ISP’s the ability to charge for websites packaging similar to how it does cable television. This would seriously limit the openness of the Internet and squelch the opinions of all but the elite who can afford the premiums to have their sites on the ISP’s approved list. It would further allow the ISP’s to stifle the completion that is using Internet streaming for movies and shows to throttle their bandwidth to a point where the content would not load. This presents a large problem of conflict of interest. The last and scariest item is that it provides the ISP’s the ability to censor and squelch any opinion on the Internet. Imagine the CEO of one of the ISP’s who desires for a political candidate to win office; they could for their subscribers block the ads and websites of the opposing candidates. This may seem like an extreme but several occurrences of this have already been documented
The stakeholders for Net neutrality are vast; of course the ISP’s will be affected along with the businesses that have online content. The government and especially the FCC have a strong stake in the matter but most of all it will affect every single resident in the United States and having sweeping ramifications worldwide.
Who has an interest?
The ISP providers of Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Cox, Google and Charter all have an interest in seeing net neutrality disposed of. It is important to note the official stances of these ISP’s and also to provide recent evidence of their respective policies, as they sometimes seem to contradict each other. The most prominent player is Comcast with over 18 million spent in lobbying in 2013. Their official statement is
“There has been no shortage of discussion and debate on the topic of net neutrality. A clear consensus has emerged for the FCC to adopt new rules that will strengthen the open Internet and ensure that the Internet remains a vital engine for innovation, economic growth, and free expression.
And while some have been led to believe something else, we support net neutrality. And we’ve been consistent in expressing our strong support for an open Internet – in statements, speeches, blog posts, filings, and advertising.
What is remarkable is that if you compare the President’s articulation of his vision for net neutrality as set forth in the White House talking points released yesterday afternoon, we are on the record as agreeing with every point.
We have publicly supported the FCC adopting new, strong Open Internet rules. We have stated on numerous occasions that we believe legally enforceable rules should continue to include strong transparency, no blocking, and anti-discrimination provisions. We don’t prioritize Internet traffic or have paid fast lanes, and have no plans to do so. 
Comcast went on to differentiate on the finer points that they disagree with President Obama on. The issue surrounds Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act and whether or not the ISP’s should be reclassified under Title II.
There is one important technical legal difference of opinion between the President and Comcast: we do not support reclassification of broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II. Doing so would harm future innovation and investment in broadband and is not necessary to put in place strong and enforceable Open Internet protections. We continue to believe that Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act provides more than ample authority to impose those rules, as the DC Circuit made clear.
Comcast stated, “We have stated on numerous occasions that we believe legally enforceable rules should continue to include strong transparency, no blocking, and anti-discrimination provisions. We don’t prioritize Internet traffic or have paid fast lanes, and have no plans to do so.” This unfortunately does not line up with recent history. In October of 2007 the Associated Press caught Comcast throttling downloads of BitTorrent files including the King James Bible. When tested on other networks there was no throttling of the same files. While the lawsuit that eventually eliminated net neutrality was underway Comcast throttled the speed of Netflix, an online streaming media provider that is a direct rival to Comcast’s on-demand services. An article revealed in the Washington Post that Comcast and other ISP’s have been degrading the speed for Netflix streaming to Comcast customers.
As you can see in this chart above it shows the speed for Netflix, keep in mind net neutrality was struck down in January. It is obvious when Netflix agreed to pay the demands of Comcast. To the defense of the ISP’s Netflix takes up nearly 30% of all data being transferred on the Internet. This illustrates a large part of the concern that ISP’s will be able to systematically eliminate their competition. It has also become a fear that the ISP’s will be able to choose winners and losers. The reality is that without net neutrality or some alternative to it that the ISP’s are in complete control. Comcast states that they are the only ISP currently bound by law to net neutrality and that is by choice. This is a half truth as part of their merger with Time Warner the legal requirement for them to adhere to net neutrality was made part of the FCC approving the merger.
The other ISP’s such as Att, Verizon, Cox, Google and Charter all hold similar positions as Comcast. They support the FCC being able to regulate an open Internet, which carries with it a separate definition than net neutrality while opposing the reclassification under Title II.
The irony of this issue is that its one of the few that has bipartisan agreement that net neutrality needs to be in place. There are a few detractors such as Republican Senator Ted Cruz but the objection seems to be completely political to oppose any view that the president has. While this feels shallow it is not unheard of for a two-term president to cause this kind of reaction with possible president candidates in the upcoming election. There is cause for concern with the Democrat side as when President Obama appointed the head of the FCC to be Tom Wheeler. The concern comes with Wheeler’s strong past as a lobbyist for the cable companies’. A recent survey shows that nearly 85% of republicans and 81% of democrats support net neutrality. In the chart below you can see that the vast majority of Republican, Democrat and Independents surveyed are opposed to ISP’s creating a fast lane for preferred data.
The large majority of informed citizens are supporting net neutrality. The question that should be asked is net neutrality ethical? Can Christian’s support net neutrality from a biblical worldview? A Christian must think ethically about whether or not net neutrality can be supported knowing that it promotes discrimination against a company from charging for and supplying a service as they see fit. Imagine a small business owner providing a service and being told by a regularity committee what they can provide as a service or even what they can charge. The argument being made by the ISP’s right now is that Netflix is taking up nearly 30% of the internet, why should they pay the same as a church who is streaming videos of their worship service to a few thousands people. If a Christian is against net neutrality they are in a similar dilemma. The effect would be to promote a companies right to discriminate, levy uneven charges or even block a company or a persons website.
It needs to be stated from the outset as the ethical response of the Christian is examined that a computer did not exist when the scriptures were written. So there must be an acknowledgement that any scriptures used will be based on their intent and principles and not on the specific issue itself. In this case it is also important to examine the various Christian traditions. A focus will be given to the Evangelical Church’s view points but also a larger view of possible implications from the Eastern Orthodox Church along with the Western Church, both Protestant and Catholic. A quick study of the various opinions will show that this topic has various groups uniting and dividing in ways other topics don’t.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has expressed concerns with the effects deregulation has caused in the past. They site that when the “FCC deregulated the broadcast airwaves about 20 years ago, the amount of religious content on those airwaves has shrunk dramatically as radio and television broadcasters have used the time once set aside for “public service” programming — including televised Masses — for profit-making endeavors, including infomercials. The fear is that recent FCC actions allowing large phone companies to offer Internet services in a deregulated environment will have the same effect on religious content on the Web.” They gone on to illustrate the dilemma that this would cause.
If the Internet evolves into a “pay-to-play” situation, religious and other noncommercial Web sites would have to pay fees to have their Web sites open to users as easily as those of large commercial entities — if they could afford to pay such fees.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said he would try to get a telecommunications bill passed when Congress reconvenes after the November elections for a “lame duck” session. The Senate version of the bill currently has no provision mandating net neutrality. He told National Journal’s Technology Daily that the net neutrality issue was “destroying this bill.”
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has also officially supported net neutrality. This was done with thirteen other religious groups in an official letter of support addressed to Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC. This was in alliance with Church World Service, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, California (CLUE CA), Conference of Major Superiors of Men, Franciscan Action Network, Islamic Society of North America, National Council of Churches USA, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Trabajo Cultural Caminante, United Church of Christ, OC Inc, Justice and Witness Ministries, United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the World Association for Christian Communication. It is evident that this is both an ecumenical supported view along with an interfaith view.
Now on the Protestant side of things we have warring opinions, if we dig deeper we will see the issue is not so much net neutrality but a fear of the fairness doctrine will be reenacted as part of net neutrality. According to the American Center for Law and Justice, they claim “the FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, in an interview with the Business & Media Institute, said before the election that this election, if it goes one way, we could see a re-imposition of the Fairness Doctrine by folks who are promoting it. I think it will be called something else, and I think it’ll be intertwined into the net neutrality debate. There are several groups on the Christian Right and Christian Left that have publicly stated their support for net neutrality. On the Left or progressive side we see bloggers such as Kimberly Knight from Patheos.com states the reasons to support net neutrality. Knight lists the many benefits of an open Internet; these include empowering social justice by the spread of information and knowledge quickly and fairly. If net neutrality is not in place it could lead to discrimination of civil rights like the industries of housing, credit and banking experienced prior to the anti-discrimination laws were put into effect. The Internet has been a platform for those with little or no voices in the political and corporate realm. She goes on to discuss the dangers of fundraising and possible content rejection.
All Internet fundraising could be as vulnerable as text messaging fundraising is now. Did you know that Catholic Charities had their text fundraising campaign stymied by Sprint? Internet speech could be subject to the same thing.
In this new paradigm, the Internet is destined to become centralized like cable and broadcast TV. Content could be rejected by network owners. The UCC knows first-hand what it is like when big media companies decide our content is “too controversial.” In 2004, the UCC’s ads welcoming the LGBT community were rejected by CBS and NBC affiliates. Could we have to pay extra for our videos to reach their audiences without stopping to buffer on the Internet?
If we examine the Protestant reformation we can gain some understanding how this would be viewed in the larger history of the tradition. The famous reformer Martin Luther stated in his 95 thesis that “Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons. Here Luther is speaking to the use of money for pardons from purgatory for themselves or deceased relatives. If we follow his line of thinking this could be applied to fast lanes of purgatory. The notion that one could buy their way out of purgatory is similar to a business like Netflix paying the ISP’s fees for faster service. The rivals to Netflix such as Hulu and Amazon Prime among others would be at a serious disadvantage if they couldn’t afford to pay the fees for the same level of service by the ISP’s.
I believe as a whole it could be argued that the Protestant Reformation and the Baptists and Methodists in particular with their establishing churches outside of the official state sanctioned religion could draw a parallel. If the Roman Catholic Church were the ISP’s then the churches that were established in the reformation outside of officially approval could be seen as the various websites. If the ISP did not approve they could forcible close the church. The ISP’s of course don’t have to use a military operation but instead just remove the access to the general public for a site. It also could be argued that the church schism of East and West can be traced to the claim that the Pope had supreme authority over all the bishops. A similar parallel is their with the ISP’s, they have a stake in the game but did not invent the internet but yet are in position to take control over it, telling all other companies how to do business. Overall the support for net neutrality is largely one sided but does that make it the right ethical choice? The question still needs to be answered does scripture speak to this issue? Does it support net neutrality or does it side with the rights of the ISP’s.
First In the Old Testament we see a strong pattern of not showing partiality. The claim by proponents of net neutrality claim that the ISP’s would be able to pick winners and losers based on their partiality whether it is for financial gain of for political or other biased reasons. In Deut 1:17 in the context of legal judgment it states:
‘You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’ (ESV)
Regarding paying a premium to get an advantage to use a fast lane it states “and you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.” (Exod 23:8 ESV) From an Old Testament ethical viewpoint it seems to show partiality for the sake of financial gain is condemned. The call for a just society where everyone has a fair shot regardless of their financial situation is central to the governing principles of the nation of Israel. Once again it’s stated “You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous”. (Deut 16:19 ESV) Is offering a separate fast lane as the ISP’s have described it equivalent to taking bribe?
The answer to this is no, offering a separate service at an agreed upon price is not equivalent to taking a bribe. The reality of discrimination or the willingness to that has already been demonstrated by Comcast is a real concern that the scriptures do in fact condemn in the Old Testament. The case can be made to oppose net neutrality from the Old Testament as well.
The New Testament again iterates God’s commitment to not show partiality. We see this is such verses as Romans 2:11 where it says, “For God shows no partiality” (ESV). We can see again in Romans 13 the support given by the scriptures to the authorities. The central idea is that the authority will punish bad behavior and not the good.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7 ESV)
The reality is that without net neutrality there will be the possibility for discrimination. Also, with net neutrality there will be discrimination that is sanctioned by the government in enforcing these policies. This for the Christian does not feel right in either direction. Does the Christian support net neutrality with hopes that the government will be less likely to discriminate that the ISP providers. Some claim that net neutrality is a redistribution of wealth along with a thinly veiled form of socialism. To address this concern we must realize that scriptures do not advocate for democracy over socialism or even communism. We see elements of all three in the New Testament. We see in Matt 21:12 Jesus overturning the moneychangers table in the temple courtyard. Jesus was outraged that they turned a place of prayer into a currency exchange like environment. The ISP’s do something similar with wanting to take the service they provide which is giving the internet connection. They in turn desire to charge companies like Netflix based on what they do with that connection. In a way they are charging like a currency exchange a rate that is not equal with the return they are getting. The question is raised could the ISP’s charge solely based on the success to the company that the internet brings. Could they charge the Federal Government for the Health Care exchange traffic because of its success with the affordable care act? Jesus also point out in Luke 14:7-11 that a person should not sit in the seat of honor.
7 Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:7–11 ESV)
It is evident that if the ISP’s are allowed to choose winners and losers based on financial or political affiliations that they would be in danger of violating this principle. For example if Netflix is given priority but another upstart offers a superior product in the end both Netflix and the service provider will be seen as trying to reject what the consumer preference is. We see this we the streaming services and premium channels that people are willing to pay more not to be subjected to not stop commercials. The cable companies have an obvious incentive financially to continue the current model with commercials do to the incredible profit they bring. In James we see an even stronger condemnation “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors”. (James 2:9)
There can also be a case made for being against net neutrality from Matt 20:1-16.
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” Matthew 20:1–16 (ESV)
In this scenario Jesus is illustrating the argument the ISP’s are making, if they offer a service and a company or individual agrees to pay the price for the service or product then they should not argue about a price charged to another company or person. Can a person begrudge someone for what they agreed to?
In the end the Christian can ethically choose to support or oppose net neutrality but I would propose a stance that should appease both sides. Whether or not the government chooses to make the ISP’s Title II carries is yet to be seen. This will need to be monitored but in the meantime a solution is possible. For the Christian they should according to the words of Paul support their government regulating the ISP’s with the notion to prevent predatory or intentional discrimination without enforcing pricing regulations. This would eliminate the ISP’s from discriminating against companies and individuals including religious entities. It also eliminates the perceived discrimination against the ISP’s and they are free to provide innovative services at prices they deem necessary. It helps to eliminate concerns on how the regulation would negatively affect the free market. This will raise concerns on the possibility that the government may use this to discriminate against religious organizations but this is a weak argument because the constitution strictly prohibits the government from opposing or endorsing a religion. The separation of church and state has long been supported by the Protestant churches and is a pivotal essence for many groups such as the Baptists.
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Center for Law and Justice.” American Center for Law and Justice. ACLJ, 2011. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
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