If you’re like me, even just a little, you use the internet for everything—talking, learning, reading, writing, meeting new people, activism, blogging, micro-blogging, entertainment, political discussion, laughing at ridiculous memes, etc., etc. What if something happened in the political realm that fundamentally changed the way we use the internet? What if it fundamentally affected our society, our culture, and our every day lives?
In the current political climate, few things are heard more than the phrase “freedom of speech”. With the exception of “covfefe,” apparently.
As Americans, our guiding principles — and thus our example to the world —have always included freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of belief. All these things are currently at risk in our local sphere, but even more so, they are at risk online.
Net neutrality is a phrase you’ve probably seen floating around the Facebooks and the Twitterverse, but not everyone understands exactly how this concept can affect how we live on the daily.
Net neutrality — much like it says — is the core principle of maintaining an internet that is unfettered by the controls of big corporations and governments. In 2015, the internet collectively stood up to the Federal Communications Commission with a unified stand for a free and open internet. Yes, even under the previous administration, the FCC was more apt to listen to the big telecom lobbyists — who wanted to create an internet that could be prioritized into “fast and slow lanes.” In other words, companies or individuals who own websites would have to pay the Internet Service Provider (or even a tax) in order for users to gain faster access to content. Big ISPs throttle and/or block content all the time and have been doing so for years, but it has never been technically legal, nor has it been prioritized as a paid service.
That said, keeping the internet classified as a “common carrier” much like other utilities is ideal and exactly what was accomplished in 2015 when the FCC — bowing to the wishes of the people — reclassified the internet under Title II net neutrality rules. With Trump’s appointment of the new FCC chairman Ajit Pai, this is all due to change. The FCC is now attempting to roll back Title II protections and allow ISPs to have their way with the internet. It would be re-classified as a service, much like cable, and with fewer restrictions placed on the companies who provide it.
It’s noteworthy that both the current and former FCC chairmen come from big telecom so the question of bias is not unfounded.
To be absolutely clear, the rollback of net neutrality protections is not about being pro-business and loosening government control, as is often claimed by proponents. It is about giving more power and control to those who already have much power and control. If anything, small and mid-level businesses will suffer nearly as much as consumers. What we are really seeing here is the degradation of consumer protections for internet users.
To put this into another perspective, let’s imagine you’ve got a small blog and maybe you pay a little each year for the domain name and hosting—which ultimately amounts to less than it would for a year of getting coffee/beer/cigarettes/*your vice here* every morning. Let’s also say you use an ad service that allows you to make a little bit of money each time a reader clicks an ad on your blog. Not only are you spending very little overhead on your site but you’re also making a little extra spending money. If you get enough views, you might even be able to afford to place ads on other sites—ads which promote your blog and get you more traffic.
Imagine that your blog gets immensely popular and you begin making enough money to live on, so you quit your day job and blog full time. Then imagine that suddenly your ISP is telling you that you’re getting too much traffic and that they’ll make it harder for people to find and access your site unless you pay them extra. This takes a chunk out of your income and you can no longer break even. In the meantime, if your company is one of the big content providers like Amazon or Netflix, you’ll still be affected but more than likely, your customers will feel it the most. The only people really winning here are the big ISPs.
Aside from the business side of things, what other things will be affected?
Freedom of The Press
The example of a blog going under may not seem like much at first, but let’s look at what this sort of legislation does to freedom of the press online. Our current administration has already shown disdain for the press at large; Univision, Politico, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, New York Times, CNN, The Hill, BBC News, and even The LA Times have all been banned in one way or another from having journalists appear at White House press conferences. If the press can be blocked or censored in this way by the government, imagine what happens when both government and big telecom work together to allow customers to see only what is “sanctioned”.
Unless you’re one of the big five media companies — essentially part of the oligopoly — you too can be blocked, censored, bullied, or have your audiences given extremely limited access to your content.
Freedom of Speech
The fun and often frustrating thing about the internet has always been that everyone is free to say anything. This can be a relief to users whose own rights may be limited publicly in their respective countries.
Returning to the blog example: A person may be blogging opinions on big events, venting frustration over a product, or even talking about the way they were treated at a restaurant. Regardless of the backlash or possible consequences of their online writings, that person should still have the right to their own voice. Just as they are constitutionally allowed in the public sphere.
In an online world where big telecom gets their way, this freedom can and likely would be severely threatened. In a world where both the big content providers and the ISPs—and pretty much anyone else at the top of an industry—will threaten a lawsuit at the drop of an unfavorable review, just imagine not being able to leave the review at all. Imagine your political blog getting blacklisted or your streaming music page being slowed to a crawl simply because a big company or government doesn’t agree with your content.
Freedom of Belief
When it comes right down to it, the open nature of the internet has always been about an intentional lack of censorship and the open exchange of thoughts and ideas. We often hear about fandom communities that have sprung up over the likes of Dr. Who and Twilight, but there is so much more out there. There are subcultures online that share everything from news to inventions, designs to money, used items to art, and languages to education. There are communities surrounding digital citizenship of online micronations. There are even online religions.
This is how culture is created: people creating actual community with the free and open exchange of customs, beliefs, and ideas. Imagine an online world where one can no longer start a Facebook group for those of a certain religion, or one can no longer run a website that dares to promote unpopular ideas…
As I said, in 2015, the free internet won.
Worldwide, the internet has enabled social change. Movements like the Arab Spring, Anonymous, and the millions of LGBQT support networks would not have been possible if it weren’t for the open international collaboration done across multiple private servers and various social media platforms (many of them with connections in countries with more open internet policies such as ours).
I believe the free and open internet can win again in 2017. At the end of this article, I’ve listed some ideas about how to get involved.
Yes, the internet can and often does contain the good, the bad, and the ugly. It reflects humanity in all its perfect and wonderful flaws. It can be much like real life—unfiltered, raw, terrifying, wild, beautiful, awe-inspiring, and fathomless. It often takes us beyond the depths of our individual imaginations and into a greater collective one. This is something that mass media could not previously accomplish. For some, it seems that the TV and radio waves have simply become an echo chamber for outdated politics and archaic capitalistic impulses. The internet has breathed new life into the masses, but not because we are all simply consumers or customers. We interact, we create, we play, we exchange, and we expand — because of the internet.
This brings to mind Sut Jhally’s words on the “consciousness industry”, or corporate mass media:
In the modern era, questions of freedom of expression and culture are intimately and inextricably tied to systems of mass communication… The media here are literally an industry that attempts to produce a form of consciousness in the audience that benefits the class that controls the media and industry in general (p.46-47).
He’s not wrong. I would simply add that whether politically or corporately, a controlled mass media most often becomes problematic — especially depending on who controls it. As media, the internet is wholly unique in the way that we can use it, but it certainly does not have to use us. Also, it can be endlessly modified to suit our needs and uses. There is more than a good chance that removing Title II protections will leave far too much wiggle room for the corporatization of the internet’s cogs and gears.
Can we really risk losing all the good that has been accomplished? Can we risk losing what we’ve become?
Sources and Further Reading:
The 12th of July was the Internet Day of Action. Thousands of companies were involved—both big and small—including everything from Netflix to Amazon to BitTorrent to Pornhub. Everyone has their different reasons, but the conclusion is that a free and open internet is worth fighting for. For more information on this, how it went down, and the next step, check out BattleForTheNet.com. It’s a good place to start.
Beyond this is the bigger fight. The FCC has opened up the issue for comments. The official comment date is July 17th. This is the time by which concerned citizens and organizations can air their concerns over the proposed changes to the rules. A quick and easy way to submit comments to the FCC with your concerns is to go to DearFCC.org and they make it very simple.
BattleForTheNet.com also provides a form to send a letter to both the FCC chairman and to Congress. Make your voice heard, get involved, and spread the word while you’re still able.
If you do nothing else today, just watch this video from College Humor from 2014 (warning: NSFW):
The video still applies, and that’s a sad thing.
John Oliver’s piece on Net Neutrality (Parts I and II)
Media Capitalism, the State and 21st Century Media Democracy Struggles
Wiping Out Net Neutrality Helps Only Big Telecom Firms
Articles on the Media Blacklist:
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