Monday, June 9, 2014

Net Neutrality, and why it matters

So, John Oliver recently did a piece about net neutrality and the scary scenario we're looking at. In it, he points out (among many interesting tidbits) that Comcast spent nearly $19 million lobbying the US government last year; second only to defense contractor Northrop Grummond. This is big business; especially if you put any stock in the recent report which seemed to indicate that "ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States." (Source.)

Well, it turns out that sometimes the common voice can be heard; the Slate article which I reference above describes how Oliver's pleas for action on the part of his viewers (along with efforts from lots of redditors, apparently) crashed the FCC's online comments section. This is an important moment; it remains to be seen what impact this will have on the FCC's decision moving forward. (It is chilling to recall that Tom Wheeler, the current FCC chairman, used to be a top lobbyist for cable television, so many see him as something of a shill for cable providers, the very ones trying to block net neutrality.) But let us hope that this sends a strong message, and that the message is heard. Because their decision impacts our ability to have these conversations. If the Internet service providers are allowed to charge content providers (not only Netflix and Amazon but startup and blogging sites) then that means that sites without a large revenue stream are potentially in danger.

Why do I care about this? Am I worried about having to pay more to binge-watch "Breaking Bad?" No, that's not it at all. The Internet isn't a private entity, even though it does rely on the wires and maintenance of a handful of large companies. But those companies ought to see themselves as stewards of this means of communication, not as extorting landlords. And this is not how stewards act. But more than keeping the companies accountable, the internet is a means of communication throughout the world, and putting regulatory power in the hands of American conglomerates increases the already uneven balance of power. I don't think that companies should be able to say what you can access with their fiber optic cables.

Furthermore, as Oliver goes on to point out, we're moving towards some monopolies with some of these large companies (he showed the Comcast CEO saying clearly that Comcast "doesn't compete" with Time Warner). Over 100 years of American law and precedent has said that monopolies are bad for everyone except the shareholders. (I remember a judge saying earlier this year, I think it was relating to the overturning of the Open Internet rules, that "anecdotal" evidence showed that there was plenty of choice for consumers in the ISP market. I don't know about you, but the only choice we have is Time Warner, and we're not pleased with their service. But there's nothing we can do about it, because where we live, they're all we've got.) Oliver also notes that US consumers pay more for Internet than almost anyone else, but our download speeds are #31 worldwide. Sound like there's much competition in the market?

So, here's the issue: the Internet can be an incredible tool for the world. Already it's allowed so many important discussions to happen. (If you haven't already, I urge you, please, to read #YesAllWomen. I was skeptical when I started reading but it didn't take long to open my eyes. Please, it's important. If you're not a twitter user, just type #YesAllWomen into Google and read what comes up. These stories need to be heard, especially by skeptics.) I'm not saying that allowing the cable companies to have a "fast lane" would end those discussions. But it would make them harder to have. And I can't help feeling that this move is a little imperialist, as well; because the Internet shouldn't follow national borders, but if we let companies control it, then treaties and taxes and international commercial shenanigans will plug it up. As citizens and as customers, it's important to learn a little bit, and find those places where we can speak up and demonstrate our voices. So if you're interested in telling the government what you think, here's where to start. John Oliver said to go to, but that has been taken down and the FCC has established an email account. I'm going to send them an email; I encourage you to do the same.

If you're looking to educate yourself, the Slate article I linked to above is a great start. Here are some other resources: (website for information and a petition to the FCC to preserve net neutrality) (handy FAQ about net neutrality) (lots of good info on this site, but this article explores the tricky legal ground on which the FCC finds itself, and how that can benefit the cable providers) (great timeline about the history of net neutrality, with links to more detailed info about each event)