Society Without Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality

First, addressing a few misconceptions about Net Neutrality:

  1. I like my Internet as it is! I don’t want the government messing with it!
    Your Internet was built on a policy of Net Neutrality. The ISPs (Comcast, AT&T, etc.) are trying to change this. If you like it the way it is, you should support Net Neutrality.
  2. Net Neutrality gives too much power to the government.
    While it does make the government a regulator, Net Neutrality actually limits the government’s power over Internet speeds as much as anyone else’s. Without Net Neutrality, those in power can feasibly find a way to slow down any sites that they do not like. Even if they cannot do it directly through government agencies, they can do it indirectly through their corporate contacts, who do have the ability to effectively kill websites at will.
  3. Net Neutrality will limit Internet access to minorities.
    The basis for this argument is the idea that, by allowing ISPs to tap an additional revenue stream by charging publishers in addition to consumers, we make it more feasible for them to give free Internet to people – especially people in poor urban areas. Poor people may have to look at some advertisements, but at least they will get Internet access, right? There are numerous problems with this idea. First, there is still no guarantee that the ISPs will give anyone free Internet. Second, even if they did, they would not focus on demographics too poor to pay for their own Internet service, as such demographics would be of little value to the advertisers who would ultimately be paying for all of this. Third, the moral argument for giving Internet access to the poor – that is, giving them access to an unfettered source of information that will allow them to take an active role in public policy issues, etc. – is lost, as you have just handed the “free” flow of information over to corporate Internet overlords who are in bed with corrupt politicians.

So here is your nightmare scenario:

  1. Politicians accept campaign contributions from ISPs with the understanding that they will kill Net Neutrality.
  2. Politicians kill Net Neutrality.
  3. The ISPs continue to contribute to the campaigns of those politicians who are so nice as to help them create this new revenue stream.
  4. The ISPs demand hefty sums from all Internet publishers who want their content to actually be viewed. Small independent publishers who cannot come up with the cash see their speeds crash and their traffic evaporate.
  5. The ISPs also demand that their friends in Washington help them to solidify their regional monopolies through policy, allowing them to charge outrageous fees for slow Internet service and ridiculous customer service.
  6. Political challengers see what is happening and decide to do something about it.
  7. The incumbent politicians see the danger and tell their ISP friends that they need help.
  8. The ISPs slow down all sites criticizing them, their politician friends, or the status quo to the point that these sites cannot even be viewed.
  9. The ISPs leverage their contacts in Washington to push through a series of mergers to create a single national monopoly on Internet service.
  10. The people can only see the content that the ISPs want them to see.
  11. The ISPs sell this new-found influence over the public mind to the highest bidder – while protecting their investments in Washington by keeping their buddies in office. The Internet’s identity as the greatest democratized source of information in the history of the world is now virtually a thing of the past.

If you think that this is a stretch, please note that censorship on the part of the ISPs for the sake of killing Net Neutrality is already happening, as are the competition-killing mergers.

Net Neutrality: Has the Republican victory doomed it?

With the Republicans maintaining control of the House and taking the senate, my Facebook newsfeed has been full of posts that include things like this:

lies

Apparently, Americans are stupid and have knowingly made a choice contrary to their own best interests. While I could write a lot about a number of these oversimplified or patently false or hypocritical claims (the one about celebrity news being particularly delicious), I really think it’s important to address this claim that a vote for Republicans equates to a vote to “LIMIT OUR INTERNET FREEDOM!”

This is, of course, a reference to net neutrality. If you don’t know what net neutrality is, in basic terms, it keeps Internet providers like Comcast and AT&T from having the power to assign Internet publishers varying levels of service speed depending on their willingness to pay fees. Of course, Internet providers want to be able to do this because it introduces a new revenue stream for them. The problem that many of us have with letting Comcast and the crew do this is that it could possibly destroy the fundamentally democratized nature of the Internet as we now know it. Under net neutrality, without being rich, I can publish content to the Internet, and if my message is compelling and interesting, that content will be shared. It may eventually be viewed by millions of people. Without net neutrality, as traffic to my website or blog starts to increase, unless I pay exorbitant fees to Comcast or AT&T, anyone trying to view my content will be hampered by slow Internet speeds. (This will be true regardless of how fast my host server may be.) As a result, my influence as an independent publisher is choked, and only the giants with deep pockets will be heard. As Republicans are the more business-friendly of our major political parties, there is an assumption that putting the Republicans in charge of Congress will doom the net neutrality movement for good and leave us at the mercy of corporate Internet overlords, effectively destroying the greatest equalizing force in the sharing of ideas ever conceived in the history of the world.

But is this true?

I make no attempt to defend the Republican Party: they may very well be taking money from Comcast and AT&T in exchange for burying net neutrality. However, the idea that the Democrats are any better is utterly preposterous. Consider the following:

  1. Barack Obama has already betrayed the net neutrality movement.
    In 2008, Obama campaigned on net neutrality. And yet, his 2012 campaign received hefty donations from both Comcast and Time Warner. His extensive ties with these companies are no secret. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that he will abandon his commitment to net neutrality. And yet, despite the fact that activist groups have made a lot of noise trying to get him to do something about it, his response has been disappointing. An apologist might point out the fact that he continues to voice support of net neutrality, but despite this lip service, Obama has not actually done anything, even though it is within his power, as the FCC is in charge of these regulations and he is ultimately in charge of the FCC.
  2. Many left-leaning civil rights groups are against net neutrality.
    Ostensibly, they oppose net neutrality because it will limit the availability of Internet services in poor minority neighborhoods. (The idea is that, if the Internet providers have another revenue stream, they won’t mind giving it to people for free or really cheap. A pretty thin claim.) The truth, though, is that these groups are funded by the Internet provider giants.
  3. Comcast and the other Internet giants donate extensively to the Democratic Party.
    One of the things they seem to hope to gain from said donations, in addition to the killing of net neutrality, is the approval and completion of the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger, which will invariably result in an even higher degree of oligopoly in the market of U.S. Internet providers, and inevitably, a continuance of the current paradigm of high fees for lousy customer service.

In short, what I see here is Democrats and Republicans both defying the will and interests of a significant majority of the people, with the Republicans doing it openly and the Democrats doing it in such a way that they can simultaneously benefit from the support of the big Internet providers while blaming Republicans for what happens.