The internet’s caught a lethal virus.
In many ways, this new threat is even worse than the recent attacks on online privacy and certain governments’ attempts at censorship and control.
This one’s more insidious and won’t get the press coverage it deserves.
Like many quiet killers it won’t have noticeable symptoms initially, but left unchecked it will have dire consequences.
It comes in the form of a recent court decision in America that effectively ends the principle of “net neutrality”, paving the way for cash-rich corporations to dominate the internet at the expense of competition, innovation and online diversity.
A threat to everything we do online
I’d like to think that we’re all in awe of the internet’s knack for kindling revolutions that topple tyrannic governments. That we admire its power to keep politicians in less-than-tyrannic governments accountable; or its ability to inspire the kind of creative risk taking that gave us Google, Twitter, YouTube, AirBnB, Spotify and [insert your favourite innovation here].
But I know not everyone cares about that.
Still, even if you’re more concerned with bingeing on Breaking Bad or House of Cards episodes on Netflix, or you spend all of your time sending pictures on Snapchat, or chatting to family on Skype, reading edgy fashion blogs or witty independent news sites, playing Farmville or challenging your friends on PS4 or watching endless cat Tumblrs or twerking videos on YouTube – you should still care.
You should still care because net neutrality’s been quietly lubricating the innovation machine that produced all of the above.
Neutrality in a nutshell
Think for a moment about another network we can no longer do without: the electric grid. It’s neutral by nature because it doesn’t care what kind of appliance – big or small, power hungry or not – gets plugged into it. They all get treated equally (for a fuller explanation, visit Tim Wu’s blog here – he’s the guy who coined the phrase).
Sounds simple, right? But it’s not necessarily a natural outcome, and we only benefit from this notion of openness and neutrality because phone networks, electric grids and water systems are classified as vital pieces of infrastructure and are regulated as such.
The backbone of the internet isn’t quite as structured as an electric grid, but the protocols that underpin it were designed using this same philosophy of unconstrained, open connections. People may have different contracts and broadband speeds but the flow of data through the “pipes” that connect the nodes of the network must remain neutral.
By “neutral” we mean that one site does not get preference over another. We don’t discriminate against upstarts in favour of established brands.
Why it matters
This principle of neutrality gives everyone an equal chance, leading to the emergence of vibrant new markets where:
- There are low barriers to entry
- Good ideas prosper easily
- Those who don’t adapt become obsolete
These online traits allowed an upstart like Google to disrupt the search market not because Google had a lot of capital to begin with, but because it was better – a long shot better than anything that came before it. And once online, all that was required was for enough people to find it and discover that it was superior. The network didn’t discriminate against it by prioritising traffic to its established but inferior search competitors, nor did Google have to pay a fee to become a member of a virtual business-boosting old-boys club.
It means that your local organic deli can have an internet presence that is just as reachable and accessible as that of Walmart or Waitrose.
It means a small group of dedicated individuals from different regions in a country or different corners of the globe can get together and start a revolution.
Without neutrality, in a world where established companies can pay for privileged access to dominate the network, the internet would have been – and in future will be – a very different place.
From neutral and open …
The US Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has recognised the importance of net neutrality, and the principle was duly enshrined in its 2010 Open Internet Order. But big internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T have opposed this, arguing that they have invested a lot of money to build and maintain the backbone that makes up the internet and that they now have a right to maximise their returns by providing an internet “fast lane” for companies willing to pay.
… to biased and segregated
On Tuesday, 14 January 2014 the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FSA does not have the power to enforce net neutrality. They made a critical mistake in 2002, classifying the internet as an “information service” instead of a “telecommunications service”. This means that they can’t impose so-called open-carrier obligations on providers, because a mere “information service” can’t be deemed a critical piece of infrastructure.
ISPs now have the right to manage, prioritise and block traffic across the internet as they please.
Rich organisations can now queue up to buy their first-class seats whilst the rest of us get herded into economy. Traffic to paying sites will be prioritised, and through clever T&C’s pesky sites slowed down or shut down without formal notice.
It is the exact opposite to what we’ve had up until now and it will have dire consequences.
“The rich don’t want freedom. They’re already free.” — Hossam Abdalla, The Square
You don’t need conspiracy theories to understand that this will happen. You only need to believe in simple economics. Supply and demand. The laws of capital.
It just so happens that all of these internet service providers are also broadcasters and owners of streaming media services, and there is a huge risk that they turn the internet into something that resembles Cable TV – a closed, subscription based system where they control the “channels” and associated content.
This won’t happen immediately. I’m not saying that these companies have an action plan ready to kill off all competition and dominate the internet overnight. In fact, Verizon issued a formal statement saying that they are “committed to an open internet.”
Don’t be fooled though. Barack Obama was “committed to closing Guantanamo Bay” too. Political leaders frequently express “full confidence” in embarrassing subordinates just before they fire them. Public statements are, well, just public statements.
We grow fat eating one slice of cheesecake at a time
This will be similar – an insidious erosion of the egalitarian principles that drive the net, with a gradual move to increased corporate dominance; back to a world of controlled, bland, predictable choices.
And it’s about more than battles between XFinity and Netflix, or Amazon over My Itchy Dog. Once fast lanes are established, who’s to say big political parties can’t pay for privileged access? Or hellfire-breathing fundamentalists? Or corrupt governments, gay hate groups and cantankerous climate change deniers backed by oil industry cash?
We’ll have privileged, ring-fenced access to mass markets for the few, just as we used to have: a 20th-century reality where huge barriers to entry enable only certain kinds of organisations to rise and prosper – where old white men in grey suits control the news; control who gets read, or listened to, or followed.
What about current internet superstars? Do we want Google and Twitter and Spotify to choke the brilliant new search engine, social network or streaming music service because they can protect their hegemony with money alone? Will this mean that they gradually become staid behemoths like Barclays or Shell or Walmart?
Would WhatsApp ever have taken off if the service providers were able to slow its traffic to a crawl because its popularity destroys their lucrative SMS business model? Would Verizon have jumped at the chance to throttle Skype in order to protect their long-distance phone call revenue stream?
And what about the upstarts yet to come or those just starting to make waves, like Sugatra Mitra and his amazing approach to education?
Think about it – one big reason for the speed of innovation online is that established players have not been allowed to squeeze competitors out of the virtual marketplace.
This ruling changes all of that.
What can we do about it?
What I describe here is likely to happen. But it is not yet inevitable.
We still have a chance to kill the virus.
1. Make a noise
Go to http://www.savetheinternet.com and sign the petition urging the FCC to reclassify broadband internet providers. This would enable them to impose the full provisions of the Open Internet Order which gives net neutrality the best chance to survive.
The problem is that although reclassification is technically a simple matter, it certainly isn’t in practise. In fact it will be a messy political brouhaha with industry lobby groups and politicians all weighing in.
So go make a noise and tell them to do it anyway, despite these potential complications.
2. Share this!
Please share this article with as many people as you can, and urge them to take action too.
3. Keep an eye out
Keep an eye on some promising developments, such as the EU campaign to internationalise internet governance and my personal favourite: this idea to establish a Bitcoin-like, alternative people-powered net to end the major ISP’s dominance dominance over net traffic management.
It’s definitely not too late if we take action today.
Image: “Smartphone” by me. Like it? Click here to buy it on Picfair