The FCC is accepting comments from the public on net neutrality. This is a good thing. Unfortunately, the majority of the public doesn’t really know what net neutrality is. This is a bad thing. Especially since the latest proposed action from the FCC would greatly diminish the neutrality of the Internet infrastructure.
The Internet has been described as a series of tubes. It’s really a series of computers connected by wires and fiber-optic cables and very complex switching equipment. One of the founding principles of the Internet has been that all data is created equal. The switches and routers pass through everything, regardless of whether it comes from a gigantic corporation, a government, a major competitor of the company that owns the switch, or some lone blogger in a third-world country. The net — meaning the infrastructure of the Internet — is neutral.
The technical capability to discriminate has been there for a very long time. A business can block its workers from watching porn. Short bursts of data like emails and Tweets can be given priority over massive floods of data like streaming movies or downloading operating system updates. But the “common carriers,” companies that provide Internet service to homes and businesses, are not supposed to slow down or stop data coming from someone they don’t like.
This is what the cable companies are trying to change.
To borrow an analogy from John Oliver, they want to turn the Internet into their own version of a mob shakedown. “You want to make sure people can watch your videos without a ‘buffering’ message every 30 seconds? That’ll be a million bucks. You want to make sure they can download your files without getting a timeout and having to start over? That’ll be another million bucks.” If the FCC destroys net neutrality, people who don’t pay the cable company vig will have their data shoved into a bandwidth backwater where it simply won’t be seen.
If you have a spare thirteen minutes, please watch this:
You may need to try more than once. This rant of Oliver’s managed to attract so much attention that the YouTube video is giving “try again later” messages and the FCC’s comment page actually crashed (here’s a video about that).
Is it clear yet how this might affect you? Imagine if your favorite news source was delayed, buffered, and made so slow it was hard to use. Now imagine that the biased mainstream news source you detest was made faster and smoother. Perhaps your favorite news source doesn’t have the money to buy its way out of the virtual gutter. People would stop using it. Advertising would drop off. And you’d be stuck with the site you don’t like.
In 1960, journalist A.J. Liebling wrote, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” The Internet has done a great deal to change that situation. Everyone, regardless of whether you or I deem them worthy, has a press. Every American can read my blog post or watch my YouTube video as easily as they can access network news shows or the words of the President. Today, we choose the content we wish to have more of. We share it, reblog it, retweet it, and click those ubiquitous like buttons. The Internet is a meritocracy where the best content wins, no matter where it came from.
Breaking net neutrality would take us back to a journalistic world of old, where the amount of cash in your pocket determines whether your content will be seen, or whether it will be relegated to a slow-moving eddy outside the main current of the data stream. The meritocracy turns into a plutocracy, and ad revenues won’t buy our way out of it.
The cable companies have an easy answer to this: they say that everything is so fast these days that it doesn’t matter. Hogwash. All of the data will live in the fast lane, but certain companies will be able to buy a super-special hyperspeed lane to go with it. Although the capacity of the Internet may seem infinite, it is not. The more bandwidth is set aside for the highest bidder, the less will be available to the common man.
The death of net neutrality is not a step forward in the development of the Internet. It’s a massive step backward, initiated by an industry that is buying its own regulations.
I encourage everyone to take action. Follow that link in the first paragraph, and when the FCC page comes up, click on “14-28 Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet.” Over 45,000 people have done so in the last 30 days. Let’s see how many more we can get before they close the comment period.