Passionately Neutral: On Net Neutrality

Recently, the Court of Appeals killed net neutrality. (It's a good thing we all like zombies. It's only mostly dead. I'll let you continue the reanimation jokes. Then we'll get serious again.) I've talked about it briefly before, but I was asked to give a more thorough explanation of what net neutrality is, and why we should be concerned about its demise.

A quick and dirty definition of net neutrality would be, "equal Internet access for all, to all." We're used to paying for the access, not the content. Access can also be obtained for free from different locations and for different reasons - businesses offer Internet access as a sort of lagniappe for patronage (coffee shops are well-known for this) and libraries are lauded for providing Internet access and computer usage for patrons free of charge because we're sort of geeky about information access. Once you access the Internet, you can locate and enjoy most of the content free of charge and with little to no regulation - except in cases where the content provider requires payment, such as paywalled news sites, etc., or where the content is strictly illegal (no child porn in the libraries, folks). It's great for everyone - rich or poor, you can access pretty much the same information. And even the poorest can find platforms for self-education or self-expression.

In addition to our freedom to access information, many depend on this ability to provide content freely. Individual bloggers like myself use free platforms to connect to our audiences, knowing that anyone at all can find our messages, frivolous as they often may be. Independent artists, crafters, and musicians can sell their products on a global scale, even when they painstakingly handcraft no more than twelve items a year.  Non-profit organizations, and even some of the largest content providers, like Wikipedia, rely on donations to operate. "Fringe" groups - especially minorities that are oppressed and silenced by their governments or other social forces - find an outlet for spreading awareness and connecting to sympathizers and others with a common agenda online.

Without net neutrality, however, you end up with access providers - ISPs (Internet Service Providers) - determining your content. I discussed this very briefly in a paper I wrote a couple years ago, which I'll cannibalize here:

Corporations are interested in the commoditization of network priority, or ‘tiering’ – they are interested in making money. Tiering can (and, in many ways, does) take place in two ways. One type of tiering is user-controlled; the other is content provider-controlled. With user-controlled tiering, the user must choose a plan determining uptime, throughput, bandwidth caps, and/or latency. Of course, the more one is willing or able to pay, the better quality one can expect. These all affect how a user can access information. More concerning are corporate attempts to regulate what information users can access – through content censorship, or tiering access to certain sites (such as competitor sites) by how much a user is willing to pay to access more than the ‘basic’ plan’s offerings. In theory, it would work much like television today – certain sites available for a set fee, others available at additional cost.
Content provider-controlled tiering would be largely invisible to the user, although it would still greatly affect what information the user can access. In this case, it is not the user who pays – it is the content provider. Pricing plans would be drawn up and agreed to that would limit who or how many see a particular site, affecting the backbone of the Internet – similar to current search optimization services. Of course, those content providers with vast financial resources would be able to afford greater visibility, while those with very limited resources would be blocked from most users’ view. Those who have found increasing visibility online – ‘fringe’ groups who face oppression, individual bloggers, and non-profit organizations, for instance – would be effectively silenced once more. (49-50)

 (Links are brand new, just for this blog post. Aren't you special?)

If we end up with user-controlled tiering, you might have a "basic plan" that allows access during "prime time" - say 5:00-11:00 p.m. - with additional charges for outside hours. Access 24 hours a day would require a more expensive plan. Or you might have a basic connection speed that would suffice for checking your email and Facebook, but the connection needed to play MMORPGs or to stream video without massive lag would cost more. More worrying is the idea that your ISP would allow you to access certain news sites, but not others; use certain search engines, but not others; filter your private emails or social media posts; block access to competitors; etc.

If we end up with content provider-controlled tiering, content providers are going to have to decide how much share of the market they're willing to pay for. They may also be forced into special deals with ISPs, wherein they agree to special rates, and maybe exclusive use through that ISP, for guaranteed access to their audience. The giants will probably be fine, but even some biggies, like Wikipedia, will probably have to start charging for access to their information. After all, they have to get the money to pay ISPs for audience access somehow. Paywalls will increase, which will further limit the access poor users can get to information they need or want. Those who can't afford to purchase unlimited (or nearly unlimited) access to their audiences - bloggers like myself, independent artists, and, most distressingly, "fringe" groups - will have to make do with those they can afford to reach. In many cases, that means they lose their online message delivery system entirely. I don't think it would bother me too much - I would be sad, but not devastated - if I couldn't blog anymore. It would be horrific for small social justice organizations that depend on the Internet to raise awareness and support.

I've heard the Internet-as-it-is compared to the Wild West, and many say, "Yes, but don't we want some law and order?" That's not the best analogy. The Internet currently is a bit like Walmart - ubiquitous, and everyone that enters can shop there for whatever is being offered. If you don't like what Walmart has, well, you're free to go elsewhere and find what you want - or you can order it and have it delivered to your store. If we lose net neutrality, though, it'll be more like the worst stereotypes of the old company stores - you take what you're offered, at exorbitant prices with money that only works in this store, or you get nothing at all and you can't go elsewhere. The Internet, like Walmart, is not always entirely pleasant - but net neutrality isn't one of the Internet's problems. It's an awesome feature, crucial to the way we've come to use and enjoy the online environment, and crippling to lose.

I'm not an expert on net neutrality, and I'm more than happy to have anyone who knows more comment with more, better, or even corrective information. (You have to back it up with sources, though - I am a librarian, after all.) And, of course, I've got links for more information! Stephen Colbert recently did a fun sketch on the net neutrality ruling, and he also did an interview with Tim Wu, who coined the term "net neutrality." Both are great infotainment.  Tim Wu also provides a thorough FAQ, but it gets a bit technical, too, so it might lead to more research - which is awesome, if you want to really understand it all. Siva Vaidhyanathan, who deserves a pedestal (I have an academic crush on him), did a similarly wonderful interview for On the Media; you can listen to the podcast or read the transcript. Yet another article describes why the net neutrality ruling is bad for gaming in particular, and does a great job describing bandwidth caps and latency issues. You can also read about how losing net neutrality is bad for your kids' education, bad for artists, bad for the poor, and bad for Internet-dependent companies like Netflix.

I would be horribly remiss if I didn't make an especial effort to show you the American Library Association's definition and stance on net neutrality, as well as their reaction to the recent ruling.

Last, but not least, this infographic does an excellent job of predicting what we might see, if net neutrality is lost to us:

Strangely enough, quink posted this on Reddit in 2009... 
If you want to save net neutrality, you can sign a petition to the FCC. The ball's in their court, now.


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