Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Evidently, many Internet users are concerned about the future of Net Neutrality. At the very least, this concern may have exceeded the expectations of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which has been forced to extend the deadline for public comments after being caught in a deluge of angry missives. As the mountain of comments is near the million mark it is a challenge to know what they all say – and while there are undoubtedly comments from multiple perspectives it does not seem unfair to hypothesize that most of the comments are exhorting the FCC to stand up for Net Neutrality.
Granted, there is not an automatic correlation between a government agency receiving a large number of comments and that agency actually valuing the opinions expressed therein. Likewise, though it is encouraging that so many comments have been given, when the number of comments is considered in the context of the total number of Internet users in the US (which was around 245 million people in 2009 according to the CIA [a number that has surely increased]) the number of comments appears rather paltry. Alas, the number of comments from users is likely not even a one-to-one match for the number of dollars that telecom companies are prepared to spend lobbying the FCC (and others in the government) to allow online “fast lanes.” Mix in a rather lukewarm comment in support of Net Neutrality from major tech firms (Amazon, Facebook Google, Twitter) and the future of Net Neutrality hardly appears guaranteed.
The hope, amongst many advocates of Net Neutrality, is that the FCC will classify the Internet, like the telephone system, as being a “common carrier” system – and thus there would be no preferential treatment for those able to pay more. It is a hope that has not been diminished, and was certainly bolstered by the news that the FCC had received so many comments that they had extended the deadline, but even as all eyes (well, many eyes) turn to the FCC it is worth recognizing that the FCC may be bogus, but is not the bogeyman.
The FCC is like the character in a horror movie who is at first suspected of being the vicious monster only to turn out to have been at best a distraction or at worst another victim. The concerned characters may at first celebrate their vanquishing of their menacing foe, but it is only a matter of time before the real menace’s laughter is heard. This is not to say that the FCC should be spared from criticism, or spared from pressure, but it is worth recalling that part of the present predicament is the result of a court ruling that struck down the FCC rules that had previously prohibited a “tiered” Internet. The aforementioned ruling was delivered by the DC Court of Appeals (not the FCC) and the party that initially brought the lawsuit against Net Neutrality was Verizon (not the FCC). While it is important to keep up the pressure on the FCC, it is equally worthwhile to bear in mind that the FCC could institute new rules only to see those rules challenged in court, and only to see the challenger (which would be telecom companies) victorious.
The opponents of Net Neutrality, the genuine opponents, are the big companies that are quite open in their preference for a “tiered” Internet. True, these companies may not openly state that they oppose Net Neutrality, but when they refer to increased consumer choice, opposition to government regulation, and praise of innovation – they are simply using a range of code words to mask their opposition in friendlier sound bites. Indeed, it is rather interesting to observe the way that the telecom companies are skillfully deploying the same type of terminology that many tech firms use. After all, it seems the telecoms are claiming, striking down Net Neutrality would really represent some serious disruption that could invite all kinds of experimentation. If only that pesky government would get out of the way! Though many of the large tech firms may support Net Neutrality it also seems that they are a bit subdued in their willingness to take on the telecoms – perhaps they suspect the way this will all turn out and do not want to have angered the companies who will be in charge of the toll roads.
The focus on the FCC makes a fair amount of sense – particularly when one remembers that the problem here has to do with pressure from massive (and massively wealthy corporations). After all, the FCC is supposed to be accountable to the citizenry; that is what one expects from a government agency in a country that purports to be a democracy. The FCC is meant to be defending the rights of the people, not the corporations, which is why it makes for such a lovely target for public ire. There is no real surprise when the telecoms act in their own best interest (what will make them more money), but the fury at the FCC is a result of a sense that there is no group standing up for the interests of the regular Internet user. In recent years there has been a steady increase in the power held by corporations – an increase that has been driven not just by rising profits and mergers but by a series of judicial rulings that have given corporations rights that seem to mimic those held by individuals (one cannot help but wonder to what religion Verizon [or Google] ascribes). This increase in corporate power has occurred at the same time that the US government has become ever more wary of regulation. Telecom companies have a ton of money to throw around in the upcoming elections – is it really such a surprise that politicians are letting the FCC bear the brunt of the public criticism?
Between 1972 and 1995 there briefly existed a government agency known as the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), the purpose of which was to provide the government (and Congress specifically) with advising regarding technological and scientific issues. It also functioned as a source for information on technology that was not overtly (or covertly) funded by forces that directly profited from the making and selling of technology. While one could imagine that an agency like the OTA would have provided interesting commentary and reporting on an issue like Net Neutrality, no such reports can be issued from it as it was shuttered (“de-funded”) as part of The Contract for America. The intent in bringing up the case of the OTA is simply to act as a reminder that when it comes to technological issues (which are many and pressing) there is something of a lack when it comes to the government. The FCC may know that it will not be completely de-funded, but it is still an organization that has largely been de-fanged. It may still be dressed up like a vampire in the minds of many, but the beast intent on tearing apart Net Neutrality is not the FCC but the major corporations who will profit from seeing Net Neutrality obliterated.
The FCC is not the hideous monster that will kill Net Neutrality, but the browbeaten doctor tasked with determining if Net Neutrality still has a pulse.
It is also worth noting that many of the major tech firms that paint themselves as supporters of Net Neutrality could stand to gain by a tiered system (which may explain their muted tone at the moment). Companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook have all shown themselves eager to snap up competitors and consolidate their control. These are firms with plenty of money to spend, and an excellent way for them to ensure their nearly-monopolistic status is for them to be able to reserve themselves spots in the fast-lane even as they maintain an aura as advocates of Net Neutrality.
The challenge of Net Neutrality, and the sorry state of the FCC, remains a tale about the fate of technology when technology is inextricably bound up with for-profit concerns. The appeal to the FCC is for Internet service to be treated as a “public good” (as common carrier), but technological systems in a capitalist context are not about “the good” but about selling people “the goods.” Life in a technological society (and the US is certainly such a case) is bound up with the tools and devices of that society, but in the US powerful corporate forces control these tools. Those angrily defending Net Neutrality can rage against the FCC, which is important to do, but the problem is not the FCC, the problem is that the FCC has been rendered frail by a combination of corporate power and politicians subservient to corporate power. Appeals to major tech firms for assistance is just further evidence of the degree to which regular people are at the mercy of technological systems. We do not have democratic input when it comes to technology (other than “voting with your wallet”) – and though the FCC may remind us that technically we should have a say, the state of the FCC serves as evidence that this say must be filtered through corporate communications technologies.
The danger of a rise in technologically enabled corporate control is hardly new, though it seems to become increasingly apparent with the flux of ever more technology. Many critics of technology (such as E.F. Schumacher, Ivan Illich, and Lewis Mumford) wrote about the importance of “democratic” control over technology, lest technology overpower democracy – and the battle around Net Neutrality is testament to this struggle. We are constantly and intimately engaged with technology, but despite our ability to use it we have become alienated from the way in which it uses our society. Writing in 1956, in his book The Sane Society, the psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm noted that (apologies for the gendered language):
“Man is not only alienated from the work he does, and things and pleasures he consumes, but also from the social forces which determine our society and the life of everybody living in it.” (133)
Those words are as true in 2014, if not more so, than they were in 1956. We are reliant upon our Internet connected technologies, but for most of us these devices are consumer products. We use devices that spy on us, social network platforms that manipulate our emotions, and devices assembled by exploited workers – and amidst all of this the “social forces” that are pushing things ahead go unseen. The appeal to the FCC around Net Neutrality is an attempt to re-assert some form of democratic control over these “social forces” but it fails to recognize the degree to which those forces have already trampled the FCC into the dust.
What is needed is not simply for the FCC to take action to defend Net Neutrality (which will almost certainly be challenged in court by telecom companies), but for people to recognize that the problem is the centralization of wealth and power in the hands and coffers of massive corporate entities. If we want to have technology that serves democratic ends than we need to consider if the devices we currently have are the best means towards those ends. What is needed is not only common carrier status for the Internet but a new paradigm in the way we consider the Internet and technology.
The FCC may look rather ghastly – but the ghostly voice groaning in the background is not Net Neutrality. It’s democracy.
The Sane Society. Erich Fromm. Routledge Classics, 2002.