Your Netflix is in danger.
That’s been the rallying cry behind the discussions this week on net neutrality. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – America’s regulatory board that, as part of its mission, oversees internet service providers (ISPs) – has been hearing arguments on whether it should allow ISPs to charge companies for faster connections to customers.
This is because the US Court of Appeals ruled that certain FCC regulations were not allowable. One of those regulations was preventing ISPs (and mobile carriers) from blocking or throttling (slowing down a connection speed) lawful content and websites. Now the FCC is seeking public comment (you can email them here) on the issue and will announce its proposal in two weeks.
What all this really means is that the FCC is determining whether or not all websites are treated equally in terms of how quickly they load for you. If they decide to allow ISPs to charge for access, big sites like Facebook, Google, or Microsoft will be able to cough up the fees and keep their sites loading quickly. However, small sites for, say, a mom and pop bakery, that new tech start up, or spirited opinion sites offering insight into crime and society likely wouldn’t be able to pay the premiums and, therefore, would see slower load times. Today’s generation knows that a few seconds of lag time are enough to close the tab completely.
The Netflix problem is a little more complicated. Netflix would probably be able to pay for better access to the consumer, but it's certainly not happy about the prospect. What’s more, it would be up against ISPs’ competing (and arguably lesser-quality) services like Comcast’s On Demand, which would likely not have pay the fees (being under the ISP's company umbrella). In short, when you watch future Netflix, it might be slow to load because its speed would be throttled by the ISP. The slower the speed, the quicker you’ll be to ditch the service.
But this is a much bigger issue than how quickly you can stream House of Cards. If net neutrality is forsaken in favor of companies' paying premiums for faster speeds, the sites we depend on might go the way of the dodo. Look no farther than Wikipedia. One of the web’s top ten most visited sites, Wikipedia is run by a nonprofit organization. Like a 21st century public radio pledge drive, visitors often see co-founder Jimmy Wales’s face in a top banner of the site asking for donations in order to keep the site up and running. If fees for access become the norm, it is likely that Wikipedia will quickly drop away as an open and free site for information.
Issues like this are actually and without hyperbole about the future of our society. The internet is most impressive thing we have ever created. It gives us access to the most important resource out there – information. Yes, plenty of people are wasting time looking at cat videos and Bad Luck Brian memes, but the internet can also be used to keep state governments in check and aid protestors on the other side of the world.
We have been able to accomplish these things because the internet allows us to do whatever we please. Thus far, most governments and companies have been unable to control the internet on a large scale. If that changes, we might start losing our ability to access the information we want. It’s easy to take such a thing for granted, but once we start losing access to information, we start losing our ability to determine our own futures. We start buying lies and half truths because it’s all we know.
I know it sounds farfetched, but it’s not. I’ve seen it firsthand. Living in Sudan, I was amazed at the things people believed based on nothing but rumor. My favorite was the fear that accepting international calls on a cell phone would cause the user to receive a deadly electric shock from the phone. There’s a chance the lie was started by the government itself as a way to keep the population to fear communicating with the outside world, but sadly there was no way to check. In a place where the media is controlled, websites are censored, and information is contained, there is no way to fight back again oppression. In time, there is no way to even know you’re being oppressed.
No, the FCC changing the rules on net neutrality won’t lead to such extremes. But history tells us that the big events that shape the human experience are rare; more often humanity’s future is determined by small, seemingly unimportant decisions made over time that set us down certain paths. This is one of those decisions. Do we allow companies to influence what we can access quickly? Do we place monetary value on accessing certain forms of information over others? If so, what will our future look like if take this turn; where will it lead us?
Keeping the internet open and unfettered is essential. Even if the FCC chooses in favor of net neutrality, we must continue to seek an open internet. It is the greatest tool we’ve yet created to help shape our society. It allows us to strive for a world that is more open and more subject to fact than fiction. It gives us the opportunity to stay informed and have our say. Anything that attempts to stop that is an affront to our future.