Two years after a hard-fought campaign successfully ensured that the US government would treat the Internet as a utility, the US Federal Communications Commission has reversed its stance on net neutrality. On Thursday, in a vote that split along party lines, the five-person commission passed a ‘Restoring Internet Freedom’ measure that will, as its Orwellian name aptly suggests, allow large corporations to destroy that freedom.
One way to understand the issue in a non-legalistic way, is to remember the early days of the Internet, when information trickled into our screens through dial-up modems. At the time, the idea of the Internet sounded promising but everything moved much too slowly to be practical. What happened next was largely due to the light-handed regulatory framework that prevented Internet Service Providers from policing the content they conveyed. Because they could not pick and choose what the users did with the bandwidth (providing it was legal) they directed their energies towards upgrading the network.
This separation of powers created an era of unprecedented informational freedom and the scores of innovations and weirdly brilliant ideas that emerged were children of that freedom. Because traffic for a large online retailer, or media corporation, had no priority over a private user’s information, the network was equally useful for commerce, user-generated encyclopaedias, instant messaging and cat videos. Nobody was granted access a ‘fast lane’ while the others waited.
That ‘neutrality’ stimulated twenty years of competition that propelled the new medium into bewildering, and culturally transformative terra incognita. Broadband access also integrated the Internet into our lives to a point at which many of us now take it for granted, like water or electricity. But just as important as its velocity and ubiquity, the lack of preferential treatment kept the network open – despite many attempts to shape users’ behaviours and interests. This freedom let them interact in fascinating and unpredictable ways. As Kevin Kelly, former editor of Wired magazine, has argued, none of the now-outmoded visions of our digital future ever imagined the impact of our involvement in the new technology.
In The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future Kelly writes: “Not only did we fail to imagine what the web would become, we still don’t see it today.” He continues: “We are oblivious to the miracle it has blossomed into. Twenty years after its birth the immense scope of the web is hard to fathom. The total number of web pages, including those that are dynamically created upon request, exceeds 60 trillion. That’s almost 10,000 pages per person alive. And this entire cornucopia has been created in less than 8,000 days.”
That 8,000-day-long miracle will soon end if its conceptual underpinnings, such as network neutrality, are removed, just as surely as a repeal of the First Amendment would transform the United States into something undesirable. In The Master Switch, a prescient account of the ways that corporate interests co-opt new communications technologies, Columbia law professor Tim Wu calls net neutrality a “shorthand for [the] founding principles of the Internet” in that it guarantees that “big decisions concerning how to use the medium are best left to the ‘ends’ of the network, not the carriers of information.”
If this neutrality principle is no longer sacrosanct, the Internet will succumb to the same sorts of corporations that took over the railway, telegraph, telephone, radio and television networks in previous generations. That scenario can only be prevented if we, the end users – the true authors of the 8,000-day-miracle – understand the stakes of the current debate, and refuse to cede our freedoms.
Long before any of this technology was part of our lives, our national poet, Martin Carter, spoke of the dangers of not understanding the importance of our connections to each other. Today, one of his best-known poems reads like a brief for net neutrality: “Like a jig shakes / shakes the loom; / like web is spun the pattern / all are involved! all are consumed!”