Net Neutrality: Some Further Reading

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Boy, those things sure are distracting.

Boy, these things are distracting.

You may have noticed that red popup about “internet slow lanes” featuring the spinning ball of death. Maybe you clicked it and got taken to the petition. Maybe you signed it and/or maybe you were curious to learn more and that’s why you’re reading this now. If so, thank you.

It didn’t feel right featuring that (in my opinion misleading and at best reductive) banner (also at Small Beer Press along with who knows how many other sites across the internet) without offering some background and perspective. Here goes.

Net Neutrality, for those who’ve been accessing the internet from under a rock for the last year or so, is the noble and idealistic crusade to prevent the corporations that provide the vast majority of us with internet access from exercising that power too greedily or unfairly. The most prominent example of this in recent news has been Comcast’s battle with Netflix earlier this year. Back in January, the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down a 2010 FCC ruling that made at least some effort to codify and enforce net neutrality. With those restrictions lifted, Comcast started throttling Netflix traffic, causing Netflix subscribers to experience slow and interrupted streaming content, eventually forcing Netflix to pay Comcast more for extra bandwidth. Netflix subscribers have not yet seen a rate increase as a result, but likely that’s a matter of time. Here, then, is what the organizations behind today’s “Battle for the Net” mean by “slow lanes”. They’re talking about the economic stratification of the internet: fast access to content for some, faster for the rich, slower for everybody else.

My objection to this wording (aside from it being alarmist and hyperbolic, which I acknowledge the international media’s rhetorical arms race to meaninglessness makes necessary to incite anyone to take any action, even the most inconsequential) is that the internet has been economically stratified since its inception. “The future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed,” as William Gibson has been saying since at least 1993. To access the internet, you need to be able to afford a computer built by one corporation and a monthly subscription paid to another, or have the audacity and wherewithal to acquire these things illegally. That’s not going to change.

There is, however, the looming possibility that it’s going to (a) get worse or (b) get a little better. That’s why we’re talking about it now, and what the petition purports to address.

In May, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed a new set of rules to replace those struck down by the courts in January. He then opened the proposal to a period of public comment, which is set to end on September 15th, in five days. Net neutrality activists don’t like this proposal much at all. The details of why and what they’d prefer involve 100+ pages of incomprehensible (at least to me) legalese–so this is pretty much where I get off. But the gist seems to be that the much shorter wording in Wheeler’s version leaves open to interpretation by corporations and their lawyers exactly what exercising their power too greedily or unfairly means, whereas the 100+ page version preferred by the Battle for the Net people lays it out that much more explicitly.

When I clicked that banner link and wound up at the petition, I balked. I love the principle of net neutrality, but I’m skeptical about pretty much everything else pertaining to it. So I went and read all those articles I’m linking to above and then some, and I came to the conclusion that despite the misleading wording and too-little, too-late feel of this particular iteration of the debate, it was indeed important and meaningful that as many non-corporate persons as possible voice an opinion about this in the hopes it just might sway the people in power away from the far less numerous but far, far more deafeningly loud voices of the corporate persons and their lobbying money.

So I went and signed the petition, and as you see. I hope you’ll read it all too and come to the same conclusion. Failing that, maybe you’ll just trust that I did and sign anyway?

Thanks for reading.

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