‘Don’t break the 21st century nervous system’
Net neutrality isn’t hard to understand, except when someone makes it so, because muddying issues is often a profitable endeavour – expensively-sown confusion is a mainstay of climate denial and a tactic that goes all the way back to the tobacco industry’s work to obscure the link between smoking and cancer.
Here’s net neutrality, then: you buy a connection to your internet service provider (ISP) so that you can access the data and services you want to access. The people, organizations and companies that have the bits you want to see buy connections to their internet service providers. These two providers have routes for reaching each other – they might actually share a data-centre, with two switches on nearby racks connected with fine bundles of fibre or strands of Ethernet cable; or they may each connect to another ISP, who connects to another, and another, until your bits can reach them and vice versa.
When you want to access my web page, you ask your internet service provider to send some data to my ISP, who passes it on to my server, which passes some data back to the other ISP, who sends it to your ISP, who sends it to you.
That’s a neutral internet: ISPs await requests from their customers, then do their best to fulfill them.
In a discriminatory network, your ISP forwards your requests to mine, then decides whether to give the data I send in reply to you, or to slow it down.
If they slow it down, they can ask me for a payment to get into the ‘fast lane’, where ‘premium traffic’ goes. There’s no fair rationale for this: you’re not subscribing to the internet to get the bits that maximally enrich your ISP, you’re subscribing to get the bits you want.
An ISP who charges extra to get you the bits you ask for is like a cab driver who threatens to circle the block twice before delivering passengers to John Lewis because John Lewis hasn’t paid for ‘premium service’. John Lewis isn’t the passenger, you are, and you’re paying the cab to take you to your destination, not a destination that puts an extra pound in the driver’s pocket.
But there are a lot of taxi options, from black cabs to minicabs to Uber. This isn’t the case when it comes to the internet. For fairly obvious economic and logistical reasons, cities prefer a minimum of networks running under their main roads and into every building: doubling or tripling up on wires is wasteful and a source of long-term inconvenience, as someone’s wires will always want servicing. So cities generally grant network monopolies (historically, two monopolies: one for ‘telephone’ and one for ‘cable TV’).
Clever cities build their own network infrastructure, either in the form of bundled fibre-optic lines, or as empty conduits that can accommodate thousands of strands. Then they build shared network-operations centres where anyone can rent space and attach to the city’s internet infrastructure. These offer service to all comers on competitive terms.
The USA does not have a good telecoms infrastructure. After the 1980s-era mania for dismantling anti-trust regulators, the financialization of the telecoms sector in the decades that followed, and a series of mergers and acquisitions, the US is largely served by a handful of giant conglomerates, each dodgier than the last, with long track-records of censure by the largely toothless telecoms regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), for playing anti-neutral games with their customers’ data.
These companies are experts at walking the thin line of bad conduct that will attract real consequences, and they’re also powerful, sophisticated lobbyists.
In the mid-2000s – just as the internet was reaching escape velocity – they convinced George W Bush’s administration to get rid of the rules that allowed new companies to use existing infrastructure to launch competing services. Then, in state after state, they lobbied successfully for rules that prohibited cities from offering access to the internet, even in neighbourhoods where no ISP was willing to provide service.
The result is that Americans pay more for slower, worse internet than most of the developed world – even in San Francisco, the birthplace of the modern internet, the service is laughably bad (after many years of this the city does now plan to launch its own fibre network). The ISPs that provide these services are more concentrated, more profitable, and have embedded their alumni in more agencies, think tanks and regulators than any other industry in America today.
The FCC has been checking the very worst conduct since 2005, when it smacked a local phone company for blocking voice-over-IP services (internet calling services such as Skype) that competed with its pricey long-distance service. In 2015, it consolidated these rules into the so-called ‘Title II’ order, which applied over a century’s worth of bedrock telecoms regulation principle to ISPs.
Now, Donald Trump’s FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, a former executive with telecoms giant Verizon, is determined to roll back the regulatory controls on ISPs to pre-2005 levels. The pathogens that have made telecoms steadily worse since then have evolved into MRSA superbugs – and Pai wants to discard all countermeasures and roll us back to penicillin. The American internet will be under assault by the big business equivalent of stealth bombers, and Pai proposes that all we need to defend it is rusty blunderbusses.
This is hugely unpopular. To make this rule feasible, Pai has had to discard tens of millions of pro-neutrality comments on the grounds that his expert agency isn’t beholden to uninformed public comment – and he’s also discarded the near-uniform feedback from the internet’s own creators, most eminent scientists and engineers, and the executives of its most successful firms, on non-specific grounds. Maybe they’re too expert?
The internet is fighting back. People recognize that the internet isn’t a video-on-demand service or a pornography distribution system or a jihadi recruiting tool: it’s the nervous system of the 21st century.
It’s been nearly a decade since Martha Lane Fox – in her role as the UK’s Champion for Digital Inclusion – contracted PWC to study the role of the internet on the lives of vulnerable and marginalized people, by studying the differences between neighbouring council estates, only one of which was opted into a free internet trial.
The people who got the internet had their lives improved in every conceivable way: they had better health outcomes, more civil engagement, better political awareness, better jobs, better grades, more social mobility. Everything we use to measure a civilized society was improved by access to the internet.
That’s because the internet is the crucial social hub of the modern age. It’s the single wire that enables free speech, a free press, free assembly, access to tools, ideas, community, health, education, employment, political and civic life.
Globally, though, regulators have approached the internet with no more gravitas than is due an odd technical bauble. Whether that’s the UK’s last Labour government bringing in the Digital Economy Act in 2010 (truly one of the worst internet laws ever passed), or Ajit Pai and his determination to ram through net discrimination at any cost.
The bad news: this is very serious. There are many struggles on our horizon that are more important than the internet – climate justice, economic justice, racial justice, gender justice – but all those fights are to be won or lost on the internet. Without a free, fair and open internet to fight upon, these fights are lost before they’re even begun.
The good news is that more and more people are waking up to this. When I helped found the UK’s Open Rights Group a decade ago, it was a small, lone voice on the subject of the importance of the internet in political life. Today it is central to the debate, and working in concert with a host of other NGOs like the Electronic Frontier Foundation to defend the open web.
In the USA, millions of people have risen up against the FCC, making an obscure realm of telecoms regulation into a central question of public debate. We are well past peak indifference, and now people are turning up on our doorsteps of their own accord, convinced that the net is worth fighting for and asking what they can do to help.
This isn’t a fight you win. The internet is too great a prize to any entity that can seize control over it for it to ever be free from danger. This is a fight you commit yourself to, with eternal vigilance.
That fight is well and truly joined now, and more and more of us are joining it every day.
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