Net Neutrality – the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally regardless of source or purpose – is, to put it mildly, a hotly debated topic.
There is a huge variety of arguments on both sides of the fence, many of them both compelling and complex – and in light of the recent agreement between Google and Verizon, many have been revisiting the debate. At stake is an essential question: whether or not the growth and development of the internet should be something regulated by government or guided by free enterprise.
But also at stake in the debate is whether or not the internet will be a new force for making society a better place; or if like previous media, it will simply reinforce everything that’s wrong with society.
Those in favor of net neutrality argue that the idea is the web’s first amendment: a legal guarantee of a fair and open internet for everyone, regardless of status or wealth.
Others, who are opposed to net neutrality – usually on the grounds that government intervention is undesirable – have been arguing that the free market, rather than net neutrality, is consumers’ best defense against a degraded internet. It’s perhaps been Silicon Alley Insider who have been beating this drum the loudest. Both Henry Blodget and Dan Frommer have argued against net neutrality, and both have done so because of their commitment to free market principles.
Their arguments and many others boil down to two ideas:
- That because it is in the interest of ISPs to provide good service to their customers, fears of a degraded, slow internet are unfounded.
- At the same time, though ISPs should never discriminate based on the type of content, they should be able to charge more for better, faster access. After all, they own the pipes and they should be allowed to charge whatever the market will bear.
But the Google-Verizon deal – in which they stated they were committed to net neutrality except when it came to wireless – highlights a problem with both of these approaches.
Large corporations act in a way so as to protect their own interests. Normally, this is fine, because the interests of large corporations at the end of day are serving customers like you and me – so the two things align.
But when large corporations are responsible for developing and controlling a new network through which we all communicate, share and connect, it means that they will develop and run their networks to best serve their own financial interests, whether they accord with what consumers want or not. The key difference here is that, unlike in most businesses, because the web is so new, many customers won’t know what they’re missing because they’ve never experienced anything else, robbing them of the chance to make a competitive choice.
But worse, it also means that the divisions in society that the web promised to break down will be reinforced.
Imagine this. Comcast or AT&T is allowed to offer tiered access to the web and, because certain video sites like Hulu or YouTube consume more bandwidth, their effective use is part of a more expensive internet plan. As a result, lower-income families across the country experience not only less of the internet than those who earn more, but get at it more slowly. Their use of it decreases, not only in ‘consumption’ like watching videos etc., but also in creation. After all, the whole shift of the internet is that, rather than a passive thing like TV, it’s an active medium in which people make stuff.
At the end of the day, the point is this: previous media helped cement a connection between wealth, status and influence because only those people who are wealthy or important could get their messages out. “Old media’ is expensive, and only large organizations could afford access to it. As a result, TV, film, print etc. reflected mainstream views that were often the same as those in power like the government or large companies because they could not, in effect, bite the hands that fed them.
The web was supposed to change this by breaking the link between wealth and your capacity to reach people. In fact, this is the revolutionary potential of the web: by drastically lowering the barriers to ‘publishing’, non-mainstream ideas could enter into the public debate in a way that has never happened.
What undoing net neutrality does is reduce the web to a mere replica of old media models in which how much you can pay dictates how much access you have. Whether or not this ‘abides by free market principles’ is besides the point. Given that our societies are still largely organized around how much money you have – which is often tied to other things like identity – removing net neutrality is akin to de-fanging the revolutionary nature of the web and turning it into something like TV: a place in which the views of large corporations and the public ‘coincidentally’ align.
If the web is just going to be like any other medium, in which the people who control the pipes can control which information gets sent through them, what was the point? Why don’t we just go back to TV, radio and the newspaper?