You’ve probably all been hearing the term ‘net neutrality’ a lot lately. It’s not surprising. It’s been all over the news. And even if you don’t watch the news, you will have seen something about it on the Internet, especially since it is the Internet – as you may have gathered from the name – which lies at the heart of the net neutrality argument.
Now if you’re anything like me, the first time you see or hear the words ‘net neutrality’ together, your reaction will most probably be something along the lines of “net what now?” So, what exactly does net neutrality mean?
At its very simplest, net neutrality revolves around the central idea that all data, all information, all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally, by governments and Internet service providers alike. In other words, all information on the Internet is of equal value, and neither the State nor service providers may discriminate or charge according to user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment and modes of communication.
Taking that definition into account, net neutrality is viewed as a principal factor in the maintenance of an open internet. In an open internet system, equality of information, as well as open web standards, allow users to do business or communicate without any third-party interference. In a closed system, governments or even corporations may determine what users can or cannot access, as is the case in China and other places around the world that don’t even pretend to value freedom of speech and expression.
Okay then, so far so good… more or less. What then, is the reason for net neutrality’s sudden ubiquity? On May 15, 2014, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Tom Wheeler (and for a brief explanation of why former venture capitalist and lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry Wheeler is perhaps not the most balanced choice of FCC chairman, take some time to watch the clip from John Oliver of Last Week Tonight, which you’ll find at the end of this article), proposed a plan that would, in alarmist (though technically not untrue) terms, permit blatant online discrimination.
So what does Wheeler’s plan do exactly and why does it have so many people up in arms? Put simply, the new proposed rules would let Internet service providers (ISPs) charge content companies such as Google and Netflix extra fees for favorable treatment. The consequence of such an allowance is that large, powerful telecom companies such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast can legally turn the Internet into a two-tiered system, in effect providing ‘fast’ lanes to those who have the money and – if the influence of market forces on socially-beneficial services has taught us anything – rickety, purposeless crap for the rest of us. For a further take on the potential impact on small and medium businesses of the net neutrality argument, a post on the salesforce.com blog is certainly worth a look.
There is a worry that as a result of these rules, ISPs will hold users and content creators to ransom, interfering with services and slowing down competitors until the ISP’s demands are met, as Comcast was seen to have done recently with Netflix, something it was allegedly able to do thanks to a court decision in a January 2014 ruling that eroded protections that were put in place to keep the Internet open and maintain the privacy and individual choice of users.
Perhaps even more unsettling is the possibility that it may not even be good old-fashioned, low-down and dirty business rivalry that might cause a website to be intentionally blocked or slowed down either. Personal politics may even come into play. What if a company decides it doesn’t like another company’s morals or philosophy? If you think that’s far-fetched, take a look at the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. court case, where company owners claimed religious freedom as an excuse for denying employees health insurance they were entitled by federal law to enjoy.
Up until now, the Internet has been, for most of us in western democracies at least, a bastion of liberty and free speech. What happens when such a bastion becomes policed by governments or corporations and the personal ideologies of their corporate heads – sometimes so deluded and cut off from the great masses that said ideologies would, more often than not, likely form the foundations not of happy, functioning societies, but rather nightmarish, regimented dystopias? Imagine an Internet governed by the sickly sanctimonious morality – not to mention the emetic sexism and unconscionable anti-Semitism – of an unfrozen Walt Disney.
And you can forget the mobilizing power of Twitter or other social media for the purposes of societal revolution… if the service can’t afford the fast lane – or the revolution isn’t an ISP-approved revolution favored by ISP board of directors – you may as well just spray tear gar in your own face.
Advocates of net neutrality expect prolonged Internet blackouts, unexplained delays with Tweets and emails and so on, and videos that take longer to load than they did to be filmed, basically a whole slew of moves designed to blackmail the populace into paying exorbitant fees for something that until now has simply been a right. On that reading of the situation, you could, I suppose, liken the ISPs of a closed system to the kind of drug pushers who will let you have your first bits of crack for free, knowing that it will be enough to put you permanently on the hook and permanently in their pockets. Think about it… how many of us could honestly do without the Internet, now?
Unsurprisingly, the arguments against net neutrality in large part come from the cable and telecommunications industries (and, don’t forget, as we mentioned before, their best friend Tom Wheeler now chairs the commission charged with making the big decision regarding all of this). In other words, the opponents of net neutrality are those set to profit from its removal. A closed system, they say, would foster healthy competition, which in turn would only benefit the end user… basically the same old neoliberal guff that’s proved to be nothing but bullshit for the last thirty years or so.
My own personal view on this is that a sanitized and monetized Internet – and I believe that is the kind of Internet we can look forward to should net neutrality be diminished – would mark the end of the grand global, cultural cohesion experiment that it has up until now been seen to be. It is the final nail in the coffin of the dream that the Net would properly evolve into the great social connector so many of envisaged so long ago. And all because, on a fundamental level, market greed can’t stand to see people enjoying something for free.