Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
There’s something about the Internet that seems to restore people’s faith in democracy. It’s free! It’s open! It’s a platform for the people! Anybody can make a website! It is as though the Internet functions as a blank screen upon which we project (or code) our hopes for what the Internet might be if only we want it badly enough.
From the explosion of advertisements, to the ubiquitous presence of tracking, to the presence of hordes of trolls – it has become rather clear that the Internet’s democratizing potential is assailed on all sides. Yet even amongst all of the detractions and all of its many flaws one of the elements that has allowed the Internet to maintain a grip on its claim to equity has been the presence of Net Neutrality…without which the Internet begins to look less and less like a vibrant town square and more and more like a suburban shopping mall. And as rents rise in that mall everything begins to take on a repetitive corporatized coloring.
Certainly, people can still walk back to the town square, but that would take so long…and it’s so much quicker to just go to the mall.
Net Neutrality is one of the technological topics with which most people have a passing familiarity (they’ve heard of it) even if they are a bit blurry on the specifics. To put it simply: Net Neutrality has a lot to do with speed, specifically with the speed at which information arrives. With Net Neutrality the Internet functions a bit like a massive highway upon which millions of informational vehicles are departing – Net Neutrality ensures that all of those vehicles abide by the same speed limit in getting from their point of origin to their destination (you are the destination). Though that roadway has worked quite well and has made many companies huge amounts of money the fact remains that the road does have a lot of vehicles on it of identical make and model (stamped “Netflix” for example). Thus there is a desire by some companies to have a “fast lane,” to ensure that their information can cut ahead of everybody else on the road. This desire for a “fast lane” works wonderfully with Internet Service Providers goal of “making a lot more money.” However insofar as Net Neutrality was the rule of the road…this fast lane and the money that it would bring could not be developed.
Unfortunately a recent court ruling effectively gave ISPs the power to build and charge for access to that “fast lane,” and though people were optimistic that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would respond in a way that powerfully reaffirms the value of Net Neutrality…the FCC has responded in a disappointing (if not surprising) way. Disappointing, that is, if you feel that Net Neutrality is essential to the Internet’s democratic potential, not so disappointing if you are an executive at an ISP and can now contemplate adding another zero to the end of your paycheck. Granted, these changes are now open for a four-month “public consultation” (read: “the public and onslaught of corporate lobbyists consultation”) period before the “fast lane” is truly opened. Yet, “Net Neutrality” as it was known…seems as though it is about to get a lot less neutral.
Alas, look upon the advertisement blighted and ever more highly corporatized structure of the Internet today and recognize that this moment (right now in May of 2014) may actually be “the good old days” of the “open” Internet upon which we look back fondly in five years.
After all, if you go online today you will get the content from Amazon or the website for an independent publisher or the website for your neighborhood bookstore at the same rate – in not long the content from Amazon (assuming they pay for preferential service) may load much, much, much faster. Will people be willing to wait for the slower content to load, or will people toss patience to the wind and go with whatever is fastest?
There is a justifiable amount of concern from many areas of civil society about these rule changes and what they will mean. Whilst further weight is given to these concerns by the fact that many of the biggest names in the tech world (Google, Facebook, Amazon) have also stated their opposition to the FCC and ISP’s latest attempt to mutilate Net Neutrality. Though it is nice to see that major tech firms are willing to oppose the ISPs on this issue, one should eye their opposition with a degree of wariness. While tech companies may attempt to apply a veneer of democratic concern to their efforts there is a degree to which their opposition simply comes down to money. If the ISPs are able to charge for faster delivery it potentially begins something of an arms race between major tech firms that will force them to compete with each other to pay for the fastest service. Consider what would happen if Yahoo! decides to pay handsomely for priority service – is it not likely that Google will feel forced to match them? These companies are busy using up all of their money to buy up would-be competitors, the last thing they want to do is have to spend money on actually competing.
What is being set up is a battle that will be fought by big firms with near monopolies against other big firms with near monopolies and while people may get faster access to Netflix in the short term a vibrant democratic society is not based on “faster buffering speed for streaming re-runs.”
While the battle before the FCC in the coming months may be primarily waged by armies of corporate lobbyists (some from tech firms opposed to the plan and some from the ISPs in support of the plan) – the somber truth remains that the very fact that this debate is being had is proof that when it comes to “the people” the agency that ostensibly should have been acting in their interest (the FCC) has served up quite the betrayal. The Internet is the result of massive public investment (read: tax dollars) but as with so much in the world today that which was built by the public is eventually turned into a feeding trough for corporate interests. Though the Internet will still provide individuals with the opportunity to build their own websites and the like, the fact remains that most individuals (or small groups) do not have the same financial resources as a major company like Netflix – can independent musician A, investigative journalist Q, poet R, or [insert your own example here!] afford the “fast lane” for their website? Probably not. And in a technological culture that is salivating for speed speed speed it is hard to imagine too many people patiently waiting for a page to load when corporately controlled website X loads five times as fast.
Many people perceive a great deal of democratic potential in the Internet, but the ease with which this potential is undermined by the profit motive should make us wonder if this potential was actually inherent in the technology itself.
Our lives are mediated by the technologies upon which we and upon which our society relies, and we cannot afford to blithely ignore the way in which we are influenced. It is not an exaggeration to state that the Internet is a particularly prominent force in the lives of many people today. Yet the Internet is not some ethereal presence that floats above and removed from the rest of our world. Instead the mediating technological power of the Internet is itself mediated by a number of societal forces such as major content providers, government regulators, and the companies that actually provide Internet service. When those regulators and companies conspire (or lobby or file lawsuits) to alter the way that the Internet functions, their efforts have the potential to dramatically re-shape the way we interact with the world. After all, the Internet may still mediate much of your life – but if the Internet undergoes a fundamental change, it will fundamentally alter this mediation.
Granted, Net Neutrality was always as much a yearning for an idea as it was an actuality – for the Internet is reliant upon levels of infrastructure that are far from neutral. Consider the proprietary devices and operating systems used to access the Internet, and consider the way in which the Internet is dominated by a small group of major firms. Indeed, to reach the “neutrality” of the net one first needs to navigate a technological hedge maze that is anything but neutral. Yet those devices, operating systems, and platforms are all simply other moments of mediation. The ways in which technologies are designed and implemented greatly influence the form that these mediations will take and as the technologies change so do the ways that they influence our lives. What can be particularly worrisome is that many people may not even realize the ways in which they are being influenced. Make no mistake: a change that allows wealthy companies to pay more for faster delivery is a clear case of shaping influence – and those most able to influence will be those with the deepest pockets.
If you use technology it is going to mediate your life, this is inherent in the act of using technology. Yet different forms of mediation have different results. Net Neutrality can be considered an open and equitable form of mediation when it comes to the Internet…but without Net Neutrality you will still get the mediation, just not the openness or equitableness.
The FCC’s public consultation period is open for four months. We can raise our voices and demand that we be heard…or we enjoy four more months of Net Neutrality before the corporate takeover.
Don’t you deserve a say in the way that your life is mediated?