Tuesday a Washington D.C. district court made a critical ruling that may end Net Neutrality and with it destroy the internet as we know it, the livelihoods of thousands if not millions, and perhaps damage the American economy in ways yet foreseen. So how did we get here and what is Net Neutrality and how will it ending affect you? Let’s take personal look of what might be robbed from us.
My entire life has been tied to the internet since its release upon the public in the 90’s. I didn’t have the best upbringing, my dad wasn’t a part of the picture and my mother suffered from schizophrenia. My childhood from birth until I escaped was spent essentially trapped in a small room, only allowed to leave to go to school (which was a privilege that often had to be fought for). From her point of view the world was filled with constant danger, and to protect me from whatever imagined monsters were waiting to kill me she sheltered me as best she could. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that she had no control over any of this, let alone her own mind, and that without considerable help she couldn’t function on her own nor take care of me.
What I was blessed with is a computer with a blazing 16kb modem to keep me occupied. This and a digital copy of Encarta was my window to the outside world, and as the internet grew so did my world. Normally growing up in abusive environment like I did would have long lasting effects. Since I was sometimes the focus of what my mom feared important developmental tasks like being read to wasn’t a part of the equation. In most cases this would mean I would have been developmentally stunted, lagging behind in school and unable to do what I’m doing now at the age of 28, writing for a living. But I am, and this was entirely by accident. She needed to keep me occupied in that room, and the best way to do that was buy what kids were into, video games and computers.
So instead of being read to by a human I was read to by a computer, the Encarta library I had had an option to read the articles aloud off of the brand new technology of CD audio. I then put that to practice in early RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon’s Quest, and instead of falling behind the class I slowly started pulling ahead of it. It didn’t last, I was accepted into the challenge program but my mom wouldn’t let me go as challenge involved a lot of field trips and extracurricular activities. Soon I had to fight her to go to school at all, and while my grades were good my attendance was awful and it was a struggle to finish high school.
However, what I wasn’t able to get from school I got from the nearly emerging internet. From my mothers perspective it was just something that occupied me that she didn’t understand, but to me it was my entire world. I was able to socialize with people all across the globe in early BBS forums, have discussions about anything and had the world at my fingertips. I took that knowledge and the experience making all of my electronics work over the years (it’s not like she could help me set up a video game console, let alone a computer) and turned into a trade. I started doing tech support at a call center and eventually moved on to a mom and pop computer shop, and when they sold their business I struck out and started my own. I wrote my own invoices, contracts, created my own advertising, found solutions and ordered parts all with help from the web and the friends I found along the way. Eventually the doors closed when the local economy tanked, and now I make my living writing about technology and video games on the very web that made me who I am today.
One has to wonder what if the internet didn’t work the way it has since its inception? What if the internet was not provided neutrally? Without net neutrality, none of this would have been possible.
So what exactly is Net Neutrality? It is a guarantee that the providers of internet access handle all packets, websites, and ideas neutrally. Without net neutrality, this means that AT&T or Verizon could block Netflix or Youtube and force you to use their competing service. It also means that they could unfairly push sites like Reddit or even Wikipedia out of the way of users if they didn’t like them, acting as effective censors.
Think about it like this. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the richest men in the world ran the railways. These were the arteries of which all goods, men, and material moved across the country, and because they owned these arteries they could charge whatever they wanted to whoever they wanted. So if they had invested in a competing beer brand they could block them from being able to use railways to bring their goods into a whole region of the US.
In effect, they controlled all trade and had become more powerful than anyone in the country, including the government. President Theodore Roosevelt changed this, seeing the dangers these companies and trusts posed he busted them up and imposed regulations that made it so they couldn’t abuse their position of power over the railways to block goods and create an unfair competitive environment, preserving the American economy and creating a truly free market that everyone could participate in.
But all of that has been worn away, and those anti-trust laws have been eroded allowing companies to get as big as AT&T and Verizion. Now they seek to become the 21st century Rockefellers, controlling the internet like they did the railways, and if they are allowed to you can kiss your ability to create and innovate against their interests goodbye. If you created a better video service then what they offer from their cable services, you’ll be blocked out. Create a website telling customers where to go to avoid their unfair pricing practices? No one will see it. That whole world I was allowed to connect to that allowed me to learn freely will be crushed due to the greed of a very few who have no stake in making the web a better place. They would in effect become the power powerful group of people on the planet, controlling global trade and the free flow of ideas.
The reasons why the appeals judge was able to strike Net Neutrality rested mainly in the notion that customers could simply switch to a provider that offered a neutral net and that the market would sort it out. If that were true, I wouldn’t currently be trying to avoid a new data cap Comcast imposed on residential customers in select areas, and my only other choice in ISP is AT&T which is also rolling out a data cap and has a much slower speed to boot. Such an array of choices I have! My livelihood is at stake, as is the world that I have been connected to my whole life, and it’s in critical danger of being crushed to fill a few pockets.
What is most worrisome about this is how impotent it must us all. You would think that the digital age would have been a boon to democracy, but our representatives are as distant and out of touch as ever. Half of our political leadership promises to fix these type of problems facing everyday citizens when running for office and then don’t as soon as they earn their chair, and the other half nakedly bows to its donors while holding to power by enthralling the lowest common denominator. I have no hope that anyone currently in office will fight on behalf of us.
So the only assurance we would have that the net stay neutral and all of the wrongs we have with our government are righted is if we seriously sit down and organize for the upcoming elections to put people for us, by us, in those seats. Create a social networking platform solely designed to put a new generation of leaders into local, state, and federal positions of power across the board, and if any of these people betrayed our trust we would abandon them immediately and recall them with as much fury as we did to get them into their elected seats.
It’s the only option. The Obama administration will not protect us despite what he has promised, Hillary would not ether if she is elected in 2016, there is no one on the Republican side of the isle that would as well. If we don’t move now, by 2018 and 2020 there quite possibly not be a way for us to create such platform, as it could be censored out of existence. It’s time to stop negotiating and just move to grab the power to affect real change. If we don’t we’ll be the generation that failed, and it would be on us that our future children will grow up in a world where they wouldn’t have the chance to read Plato’s work and create virtual worlds without limit.
It falls onto us.