Did we just trade away the Internet? It sure looks that way.
Don’t take me too literally. We’ll always have something called “the Internet”. It just won’t necessarily be the real Internet, the one we’ve come to take for granted.
By which I mean the open Internet – the one featuring a precious jewel called “net neutrality”.
We’ve washed our hands of that Internet. To get what we got, to do what we did, to deal ourselves the cards we dealt – we bargained it away.
During his campaign, the winning candidate got lots of derision for proposing to “shut down” the Internet as a way of combating terrorism. (Not that terrorists themselves wouldn’t shut it down if they could.)
In the laughter, few of us noticed – and fewer discussed – his more serious promise to abolish net neutrality.
The Internet, from its birth, has been a resource freely and equally available to all. Granted, Google and Amazon can hire more coders and deploy bigger servers. But you or I can put up a site of our own that runs just as fast and is just as visible as any of theirs.
This equal-access feature has empowered millions of creative startups and Internet entrepreneurs. Without it, the Web today would not be the Web as we know it. Who doesn’t love that?
Here’s who: Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon! For years, they’ve been demanding the power to censor Web content. They want to throttle sites they don’t like and push those they do (including, but not limited to, their own).
Most of all, they want to create high-priced, pay-to-play “fast lanes” whereby they’ll extract big bucks from deep-pocket conglomerates like Netflix. Ordinary citizens need not apply.
After long struggle, the FCC recently upheld and enforced the net neutrality principle that has distinguished the Internet since its birth. Telecoms were required to treat all traffic equally. That’s good for you and me.
Every few days, the telecom industry takes the FCC to court, challenging its net neutrality rules. So far, the Obama administration has prevailed.
On alternate days, Congress – more accurately known as the telecom industry’s legislative arm – passes bills killing net neutrality. But Congress has thus far been unable to override the Democratic President’s veto.
Not to fret. Our new populist-in-chief has pledged to take the Internet away from the populace (us) and give it to the giant telecoms. Killing net neutrality and in effect privatizing the Web.
Bills to that effect already are pending in Congress. It won’t be hard; they only need to dust off a previously vetoed version.
Should you complain to your reps in Congress? Sure, but don’t be surprised if their response is a rant reviling net neutrality as “an attack on the Internet”, as “oppressive government regulation”, as “executive overreach” designed to “strangle innovation”.
If that sounds to you like Orwellian doublespeak, you’re right. That’s how the telecoms and their legislative employees vilify the FCC’s straightforward anti-discrimination rules.
Net neutrality is comparable to fair housing, equal education, employment opportunity, voting rights, and other social norms we take for granted. Government protects these on our behalf. Yes, it’s true: Those safeguards constitute (technically) a form of regulation.
So what? Without government guarantees, we’d still be regulated. We’d just be regulated instead by predatory monopolies for their own power and profit. That’s what you won’t hear from Big Cable’s lobbyists or the lawmakers whose campaign war chests they stuff with legal tender.
Could something come along to save net neutrality? Sure, anything is possible. Right now, though, I don’t see it.
We can sign petitions and perhaps even call our representatives. By all means, let’s do that.
But the problem is, we already held a national referendum on this question. On November 8, we voted to consign net neutrality to history’s dustbin.
Let’s therefore enjoy it while we can. Even if that’s only for the next few days. We’ll have plenty of time, later, to wonder whether the trade we chose was worth it.