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I promised earlier to write more about net neutrality That is the assumption now signed into law by the current American regime, that the internet is really just like a telephone service, and can be regulated like a utility.
The obvious problem is that the internet is not a utility; it is, rather, a supermedium operating on various utilities that enables almost all other media as a result. It is a pure information stream.
So, getting control of the internet means getting control of the information flow as such. That should attract scrutiny.
That, and two other things: Governments tend to enforce what’s easily enforceable but not necessarily what needs enforcing. Following an established cultural trend in many places, they may decide to enforce against Christian groups using the internet (“to spread hate”) but not against anti-Christian groups (who are, we are told, just “giving voice to their concerns”).
Second, the underlying assumption behind regulated public utilities in the early 20th century was that government involvement would spread the benefits from the rich to the poor. But today, there is nothing unusual about homeless people having cell phones. So it is genuinely unclear how important a goal social equality is, relative to potential free speech risks to all citizens who use the ‘Net. Especially those whose non-violent goals may differ from those of a prevailing government (family values groups come to mind).
Here are five things I have learned in the last few weeks. I have tried to avoid listening only to one “wing”. The curious thing is that – possibly as a result – I have found general agreement:
1. Big telecom players like Comcast and Verizon are contesting Net Neutrality, as is their right:
Comcast was also the eighth biggest spender on federal lobbying in 2014, so not only does it have the cash to catch the attention of lawmakers, it has a small army of lobbyists to deliver the donations and the company’s message. To be more precise, Comcast has 128 federal lobbyists on payroll, 105 of whom have gone through the revolving door. That includes six former members of Congress who have now become lobbyists.
So big politics is involved.
2. Of course Net Neutrality will lead to censorship:
If ISP’s will be able to charge varied rates or decide to vary internet speed, it is a very short step towards selectively discriminate against sites based upon content. Do not get lulled into thinking that constitutional protective political speech is guaranteed.
It cannot fail to lead to censorship because governments have wanted to shut down, interfere in, or monitor all of our side conversations for a long time.
3. The censorship will probably differentially affect family values groups because we tend to be somewhat disorganized, underfunded, unpopular, easily ridiculed, and slow to respond effectively. And typically lack the funds to mount effective challenges.
4. The Net may not be able to handle the traffic it carries today:
“There’s a lot of complexity here at a technical level that is absolutely lost in the policy conversations,” says Fred Baker, a distinguished engineering fellow at Cisco Systems and former chair of the Internet Engineering Task Force. Getting the technology right is crucial for the future of the Net.
We may see rationing of internet time in the future.
5. While many groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, endorse net neutrality as a victory for free speech, some of us remain unsure. For example, we hear
There’s no place for discrimination or bias in this country, whether in person or online. Without net neutrality rules in place, there is potential for internet providers to have control over what you’re allowed to read or visit online, blocking what they choose and directing you where they want. It wouldn’t be good for businesses and it wouldn’t be good for consumers. This groundbreaking and consequential decision by the FCC prevents that from happening.
The problem is, what rule prevents government from doing the same thing as ACLU accuses private groups of wanting to do? Local internet providers may not care much if we belong to a family values group for example. But a government might, especially if some reps could be harmed. ACLU might be slow to answer the phone… .
Well, we shall see. In the mean time, here are some thoughts by Thomas Jefferson on the importance of a free press, an earlier example of the issue we face today:
“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.” –Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823. ME 15:491
We may end up fighting this battle all over again. But now at least we have mentors.
Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.