Dead on Arrival: A Look at Net Neutrality - Empire Week

By Matthew DeMello

Photo courtesy of Official GDC.

The war is over and we lost.

That’s the overwhelming sentiment this week among advocates for net neutrality — a not terribly popular or large sect of the American left who seem to be the only members of our society who value the Babylon of self expression that is the internet. The term “net neutrality” generally represents the notion that all data on the internet should be considered equal in the eyes of private network service providers (ISPs for short) and federal regulators.

That value, which is considered central to the very foundation of what we know as the World Wide Web by those who respect its power for good the most, has never been codified into law or substantially regulated into effect by a federal agency. Until about four years ago, when the telecom industry saw massive profit potential in commodifying data through cell phone plans, there was no real need to. Now, any hope to keep the internet free in the near future is considered inexistent thanks to a recent court ruling knocking down the FCC’s attempt to basically treat ISPs like utility services.

While there is some chance the FCC can salvage the situation in another regulatory framework, and apparently put a giant leash on the internet in the process, a few publications hang on to hope.

Yet at the heart of the incident lies a question that can be used best to explain the ramifications of nullifying net neutrality: How could data be treated unequally? “Could” is the operative word in a question that has plagued the FCC through four years of rigorous, yet largely underreported congressional hearings and vain attempts at reining in potential telecom monopolies through feint regulatory gestures. It’s also a question with ramifications that are difficult to impress upon a public today who basically operate an ever-growing number of their life functions on the as yet neutral internet and know it in no other capacity.

What could happen now that net neutrality has been lost, according to expert-approved elevator pitches, is that you may have to pay a fee for content on Vimeo or Netflix to run at high definition and/or upload at maximum speed at some point. Another popular prediction is that smaller websites, like yours truly, would run substantially slower than, say, Facebook or Google.

Also at play is a fate far more sinister — that the internet of the people, a platform for free expression that has helped everyday members of society topple dictators (and also hurl dribbling obscenities in all caps at each other through comment threads) will likely disappear. Telecom titans like Comcast and Verizon will be able to block any website they please from appearing on your phone or browser for any reason, quantifying corporate censorship in its purest form. Pay-to-play models will keep low-income families from enjoying internet access. The “blogosphere” as we know it will be trimmed of all its radical and free thinking branches, probably down to a proverbial tree stump. What will be left in its stead is only a hyper-corporatized engine for the ends of mass consumption, as opposed to mass feedback.

The most unfortunate aspect is that the very people who seem to care about net neutrality (sworn believers of the free culture movement who think you should be able to download every Zeppelin album in ten minutes for free whom I otherwise want nothing to do with) are squarely to blame for the problem. The reason can be found in detail in this 2010 op-ed on the subject I wrote for BTR. But in short: ISPs have been able to gain substantial power in commodifying data and trafficing it on a profit margin only thanks to illegal file-sharing.

In that op-ed, you’ll find me trying to warn the music community that they ought cop to the role that illegal file-sharing has played into this perfectly foreseeable debacle. To the extent at which the notion is hopelessly ignored can be summed up in two sentences from a story in The LA Times on the federal court ruling:

“The telecom companies claim their chief interest is in providing better service to all customers, but that’s unadulterated flimflam. We know this because regulators already have had to make superhuman efforts to keep the big ISPs from degrading certain services for their own benefit–Comcast, for example, was caught in 2007 throttling traffic from BitTorrent, a video service that competed with its own on-demand video.”

Yeah, sure. BitTorrent (a special piracy browser that represents the great grandson of Napster) is a video service that competes with Comcast. And Al-Qaeda is a business council of Middle East entrepreneurs who openly and peacefully compete with the US for economic influence in the Arab world.

It isn’t hopelessly revisionist to say that if we lived in times like, say, the late ‘90s (when America’s biggest problem was how marginally embarrassing it was to have a lying, unfaithful lothario for a president) then net neutrality might have gained more traction in the news cycle. At its last negligible peak in media coverage, only Senator Al Franken of Minnesota really seemed to care whether or not the internet went to the telecom dogs or not.

The truth of the matter is that healthcare reform, avoiding economic calamity, easing tensions in the middle east, submitting a budget, and just about any other actual news headline not involving the Selfie Olympics, a man with two penises, or a Kardashian’s romantic life is actually more important than net neutrality. In 2014, I’d be surprised if Y2K could get the traction that it did back then.

We live in a world that is healing from great and almost unprecedented turmoil, and in more than a few places around the globe it’s only getting more chaotic. In terms of imminent importance, net neutrality probably ranks between animal rights and mandatory prayer in schools among most Americans, if not somewhat lower. A contrarian friend of mine put the sentiment perfectly in a comment on Facebook to my post on the ruling: “All the more excuse to start going back outside.”

I have other problems with the technology-is-the-devil movement, but an internet groomed with the comb of corporate censorship is hardly a worthy trade-off for anyone’s lack of discipline for their physical well-being.

You can get on a treadmill or go for a run outside anytime you want; nothing is stopping you. If you want to blame Twitter for why you’re lazy, or Facebook for why no one calls you on your birthday anymore, be my guest. But while you were Googling “the man with no ass crack”, the ability for freedom fighters and free-thinkers across the world to communicate and cooperate on the same playing field as racist social media trolls, celebrities, government agencies, and massive conglomerates is about to become a thing of the past.

So for now, enjoy the free cat .gifs, high-quality YouTube videos that play the minute you click on them, insidious comment threads, Tom Brady memes, teenage Tumblr pages, independent photoblogs of Middle East struggle, and probably the very existence of Wikipedia while you still can, denizens of the digital age. You’ve earned it.