Net neutrality, the principle that Internet service providers (ISP) should treat all data on the Internet the same and not discriminate based on user, content or equipment, has governed the Internet since its inception. In its early days, the concept of net neutrality was critical to providing an open forum where any individual or company was provided a level playing field on the web without restrictions on who could access content, the nature of that content, or the software or hardware required to access the content. When files were smaller, equipment was slower and users were fewer, net neutrality was an undisputed guarantee that ensured the Internet remained an egalitarian, democratic and open space.
However, with the explosion of mobile Internet-connected devices, dramatic spikes in the number of Internet users and the flourishing of streaming services, those corporations that had consolidated control over the Internet infrastructure (eg Comcast, Time Warner & AT&T) decided that the egalitarian nature of the Internet no longer worked well for their bottom line. In response, these corporations began to push for the regulator authority to charge a premium for providing higher speed Internet service to companies willing to pay for preferential treatment.
In 2002, under the leadership of then-chairman Michael Powell, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) maneuvered to define broadband Internet as an “information service”, which would effectively limit the extent to which the FCC could regulate the industry. However, by 2011 the FCC had reversed course and proposed rules that enshrined net neutrality as the governing principle for the Internet. But in January 2014, a federal appeals court struck down the FCC’s regulations as part its judgment in a lawsuit brought against the FCC by Verizon. In response, current FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler declined to appeal the verdict and instead go about the work of crafting a new set of regulations for broadband Internet service.
The rules that Wheeler and the other FCC commissioners approved for comment allow service providers to make available a “fast lane” for companies willing to pay for greater broadband access and speed. Many critics claim the FCC’s proposal will fundamentally alter the egalitarian nature of the Internet; or to put it more succinctly, the FCC is about to break the Internet. As public comment on the FCC proposal begins, we can see the rise of activist networks dedicated to preserving net neutrality and spiking the FCC proposal before it becomes the governing law of the Internet. Now the only question is “Can the activists save the Internet?”
The possibility of a pay-to-play Internet has generated concern, opposition and outrage among the millions in the United States and across the world. While activist have championed net neutrality since Michael Powell’s attempt to radically deregulate government oversight of the Internet, it has been a rather lonely endeavor involving small clusters of individuals connected through virtual networks and tirelessly working to raise public awareness and encourage public officials to protect the egalitarian nature of the Internet. Too often the efforts of these core activist networks, such as Free Press, SavetheInternet, andSaveOurNet, confronted telecommunication corporations over particular policies and/or actions and then fade into the background of the media cycle and public consciousness. However, over the past couple of years the issue of net neutrality has become integrated into a number of larger Internet issues, such as online privacy rights, big data, file sharing, and government surveillance of the web.
In effect, net neutrality became part of the solution proposed by activists seeking to not only maintain a level playing field but also curtailed the excesses of established telecommunication titans like Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and AT&T. By ensuring that all content and all services receive equal treatment by the ISPs, net neutrality activists believe that, for example, the questionable practices of Google and Facebook in regards to user privacy rights can best be combatted by an open Internet that not only encourages competition in the form of new and alternative applications that respect user privacy, but also by encouraging individual and start-ups to create modifications to the popular applications provided by the incumbents.
As the FCC began to debate its most recent proposal to create Internet “fast lanes”, activist networks resurfaced in media coverage and began to campaign against the latest threat to net neutrality. But this time the fight was far less solitary. On May 7, 2014, more than 100 companies whose business models are rooted in equal access to the web sided with the net neutrality activists and wrote an open letter to the FCC. This letter, signed by companies such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Ebay, called upon the FCC to maintain the principle of net neutrality in order to “protect users and Internet companies on both fixed and mobile platforms against blocking, discrimination, and paid prioritization”. While it would be convenient to suggest that the activists and Internet companies shared a unified, principled and philosophical opposition to the ISP’s pay-to-play scheme, the reality is that the Internet companies do not share the activists’ commitment to a fully egalitarian and thoroughly democratic Internet. Amazon, Google, and Facebook, among others, are joining the net neutrality activists cause because the pay-to-play model championed by Comcast, Time Warner and other ISP corporations is likely to require them to pay substantially more fees for services that demand heavy broadband use. In effect, Amazon, Google and Facebook are little more than fair-weather friends to the net neutrality activists and are engaging in a bit of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Perhaps with a some help from the Internet companies, the activists can lead the campaign against net neutrality and save the Internet.
Yet net neutrality activists must keep in mind that when it comes to data collection, privacy rights and cooperation with sweeping government surveillance of the Internet, Amazon, Google and Facebook are the same companies that have consistently demonstrated a disregard for an egalitarian and democratic Internet. Perhaps it makes strategic sense to make common cause with the Internet companies over the issue of net neutrality; but once the FCC rules are won or lost, those activists committed to preserving a free and open Internet will need to again rally against Amazon, Google, Facebook and the other Internet companies that seek to sell, restrict or control the Internet. The fight to save the Internet will not end with the FCC ruling and activists must remain vigilant not only in this instance, but in future moments when commercial or governmental institutions attempt to curtail the Internet. In the end, activists can save the Internet but it will be a long and hard fight.
Originally published by Anthropology News.