It is a fight that should be of epic, headline-grabbing proportions.
Some of the most hated companies in the country might be getting friendly with an increasingly mistrusted federal government, while some of the most powerful and recognizable companies that might be compromised in the process are starting to chime in.
And amidst it all, there is the possibility that these equally disliked entities are actually colluding in order to screw you, the consumer, over.
Yet as the tech world and Internet activists eagerly anticipate a Federal Communications Commission proposal for new rules that could affect the principle of net neutrality, the fight for an “Open Internet” has mostly remained a niche issue, despite some already dubbing it as the “free speech issue of our time.”
But thanks to the lede in a New York Times article from this weekend, we might have an idea as to why this might be the case:
"The next time the loudmouth in the next cubicle interrupts you with yet another recap of his weekend, just start talking about ‘net neutrality.’
He will immediately bury his head back in his work, perhaps even lay it on the desk and begin napping."
Net neutrality has become the lullaby of the 24-hour media landscape. The term represents the status quo and suggests that we should keep things exactly as-is. This poses an issue: how can you rally the troops to fight for something that they already enjoy? Perhaps the issue lies with the term itself. Net neutrality must be made sexier. And by sexier, we mean it must be equated with castration.
Net neutrality must become net neutering in order to survive.
THE NEUTERING OF THE NET
Exactly how the Internet stands to change in the foreseeable future is unclear, but there is a worst case scenario that the most-tuned-in have been fearing since a recent leak of potential new FCC rules.
In that outcome, the Internet as we know it would become a class system offering faster data speeds to companies or individuals who could pay for it, leaving the rest of us in the slow lane. Internet service providers (ISPs) could potentially prioritize the speeds of content partners or company offshoots, and impose slower speeds for the websites of competitors, putting non-ISP affiliated companies at a competitive disadvantage.
Some companies— Netflix being a prime example— could be forced to pay ISPs for the standard connection speeds they already enjoy just to remain relevant in the search for viewers. The ISPs would, in essence, be able to charge you for access to the Internet and the content providers or services for access to an audience.
No such arrangement currently exists and many fear that if implemented, it would stifle the growth of any startup would-be competitor who might not be able to pay these unprecedented fees for operating a business online.
It is precisely this last point that would be the coup de grace in the neutering of the net, as the democratic Internet as we have known it will seize to exist. Overnight, this new barrier of entry could create a space where only the wealthy, already established companies can succeed on the Internet. Internet baby companies be damned; in the neutered internet, there are only parents, and no subsequent generation that will step up to challenge them once it comes of age.
Just picture the horror of this castrated digital world. If what Internet advocates need is something to rally against, the image of an Internet without any balls, and without any viable startups is just what the doctor ordered.
COMPANIES VS. PEOPLE
At the core of the current fight for how to regulate the Internet is the eternal struggle between the excesses of capitalism and a more consumer-oriented model.
With the structure as it is, a few ISPs create and maintain the infrastructure that you use to connect to the Internet, and they enjoy many of the benefits of a free market economic structure. The trouble is that while consumers have a choice of ISPs in theory, in practice there are very few options available when it comes to a neighborhood to neighborhood level, which many charge has led to mono or duopoly-like practices.
In truth, entire cities are dominated by one or two companies, ones that charge more for the connecting to the web than almost any other developed nation. And over the last few years, Comcast, for example, has seen incredible growth in its broadband service profits, while the amount of money it spends to maintain and update infrastructure has been declining in the long-term.
“They’re not expanding and they’re not enhancing their service,” tech policy expert and Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Gilded Age author Susan Crawford told Time magazine last year. “They’ve done their investment, now they’re just harvesting.”
For a long time the FCC tried to keep a check on the potential abuses of such a system by regulating the Internet like a public utility, a stance that was most recently struck down this January. A federal court ruled that the FCC was actually regulating it as a public utility without officially declaring it as such (like a phone company, for example), which basically means that at the moment there are no rules for the Internet.
Following a public outcry and a strongly worded letter from top tech companies concerned of such a worst-case scenario, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler issued a letter last Friday hoping to assuage the fears of Internet activists and these tech giants. “In the forthcoming proposal, we will have a specific innovative approach to making sure entrepreneurs are not drowned out by big companies,” he wrote. In the letter, he also notes that he will use any tool at hand in order to preserve the Internet as we know it, including designating the Internet as a public utility once and for all.
The critics, we might note, are taking these statements with a grain of salt.
Ultimately, the core question at this point in time is the following: is the Internet (which was initially developed using taxpayer dollars) ultimately for the benefit of the people, or for the profit of the telecommunication companies? Because if those in power at the FCC decide the latter, then that would open up the floodgates that could lead to this dreaded neutering of the net.
Now as for us, we need to start evoking that image in the language we use to talk about it. Who knows, you might actually keep your coworker awake when you bring it up. And at worst, he might have a nightmare about castration.