The Enemy at the (Internet) Gates, Colltalers
This was supposed to be a short, clear-cut newsletter about the U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision last week to throw out federal rules preventing broadband giants, such as Verizon, from creating tiers of Internet accessibility, effectively killing so-called net neutrality, the ability of anyone to access the Web equally.
The ruling, a defeat for the Federal Communications Commission, may in fact mark the end of cheap, high quality Internet service for those without deep pockets. If it stands, it’ll determine that you may continue to access Nike’s Web site, or Google’s almost immediately, as you do now, while visiting Colltales, for instance, will take a big chunk of your day; you may find yourself back in the days of buffering…buffering… buffering.
Which is indeed unfortunate and not only to our unwaveringly loyal readers, but to all who still believe the Internet is and should remain a basic right to every citizen, just like to it is access to clean water, electricity and gas services, if you live in a minimally organized society.
Thus, free speech advocates and civil rights organizations around the world are fully mobilized to fight the ruling and prevent big corporations from turning the Internet into the kind of shameful cable services we all love to hate, where you don’t get to choose what you get but still pay a lot for it.
A deeper look into the issue, however, shows that, as it was formulated, the FCC’s regulatory stance concerning Internet providers was hardly defensible, as it insisted, back in 2002, that Internet giants were not utilities, like landline phone companies, or carriers, like telecoms, but ‘information service providers,’ a special classification in line with the financial interests of the providers themselves, not the customers.
That definition, essentially, is what turned net neutrality such a fragile concept, from a judicial and regulatory point of view, since the FCC has no authority to impose the same restrains on information service providers as it does over carriers and utilities. Hence, Verizon’s victory.
Before we dig further into what this all means, let’s just clear the air about why fighting for open and equal access to the Internet for everybody is so important, and not just a ‘first world problem,’ as it’d be easy to characterize it. The reality is that the power of such access has already proved to be instrumental for many progressive global movements, regardless of their result or consequence. The Arab Spring is but one recent example.
Plus, wirelessly or via satellite, even impoverished nations without a reliable electrical grid can theoretically benefit from Web access, the NSA spying and malignant malware creators notwithstanding. As the technology improves, so will the connectivity among peers, groups and nations.
Also, aside all the potential applications and promises of increased communications regardless of physical distance, something that only radio in the past was capable to deliver almost from the get go, there are other implications a free Internet may represent as an empowering tool for communities big and small, and to what it means to live in a multicultural society, again, all the bullying and malfeasance notwithstanding.
The latest round in the ongoing fight over Internet access, which corporations seem to have gained an important upper hand, albeit, momentarily, one hopes, may have the best correspondence in the ‘concrete’ world with the fight over real estate, between the haves and the have nots.
Just like those undesirable city areas to where artists, squatters, low income and downright pauper communities are pushed to, and through the years, ‘colonize,’ only to be kicked out later by powerful landowners and speculators, who evict them, gentrify the area, and turn it into a golden mine, which would’ve been impossible without those who were there before, so is the mere concept of a free, and democratic Web.
The situation also reminds us of how most drug researches are developed: like the Internet, they usually start with sponsorship and support of only not-for profit and academic institutions, when not exclusively by public government agencies. It’s only after a new medical breakthrough gets to its final stages of development that big pharma shows up, muscles in and takes over the process, to commercialize it at a high profit.
Going back to net neutrality, there can’t be any doubt that it’s crucial that it remains so, even that it’ll be tricky to keep a balance between the need to protect it from becoming a privilege and property of the well-heeled, and to allow the kind of free enterprising spirit that boosts innovation.
To defend a solution that would keep the government out of the equation, given the justifiable paranoia ignited by the revelations about the NSA’s breach of privacy abuses, and that the market has the ability of regulating itself, would be the same as to trust foxes with the guard of chickens.
At the same time, one can’t advocate locking said chickens inside an air-tight chamber, under the excuse of protecting them, and expect that they won’t suffocate. Before taking this bad metaphor any further, it’s suffice to say that too much oversight is almost as bad as no oversight at all.
In other words, it’s not the content and access to the Internet that needs to be regulated, but those who deliver such access and content to everybody else. Big providers have as much right to charge for their services as consumers have not to buy them, as long as there are other choices.
And that’s where their edge resides, and where regulation may provide the counterbalance. There are many ways that that can be achieved, without closing the door both to technological breakthroughs and equal-footing free access to anyone: individuals, groups or commercial enterprises.
A final word about the aforementioned innovation, which is supposedly boosted by a free enterprising environment: at least at the current stage, it has been driven mainly by the lure to profit from an ever increasing customer base, rather than by the pursue of technological breakthroughs.
As it is now, the Internet’s basic principles haven’t changed much since its original conception as an integrated platform of global communications, created in the early 1960s as an academic and military tool. Digital technology, in comparison, has evolved faster in a relatively shorter timespan.
Which means that, since big corporations and phone companies have gotten into the game, its ever-evolving process of development has somewhat slowed down to a set of basic rules and procedures. That should say something about these self-appointed job, er, ‘innovation creators.’
But it’s almost a given that, as we deplore the FCC’s failure to defend in court its very own reason to exist, which is to ‘promote competition, innovation and investment in broadband,’ big Internet providers are feverishly searching for ways to consolidate their newly reinforced domination.
Thus, short of congressional action (who are we kidding?), it’s very likely that the government agency will choose to have another go at its fragile position and appeal the court decision. A more effective approach would be to classify providers for what they are: a licensed operator for a common good vital to all society and, as such, forced to guarantee equal access to anyone regardless of their social strata or financial position.
If that’s to happen, though, it’ll take a large mobilization from all segments of society, even bigger than the global movement, two years ago this month, that defeated the ill-advised SOPA/PIPA legislation which, under the pretext of curbing piracy on the Internet, actually came close to establishing mechanisms of online censorship. Behind the proposed rules were the same cast of characters.
They’ve lost then but are back on the saddle now. It may be hard but they can’t prevail. And with your help, they won’t. Have a great week. WC