On Sept. 10, over 40,000 website giants like Netflix, Tumblr and Dropbox participated in a collective online protest, putting up “loading” icons to call attention to what they called “The Internet Slowdown.” Organizations like “Battle For The Net” and “Save The Internet” desperately wanted to get the message out to as many people as possible: we are facing a very imminent danger of losing the free and open Internet as we know it.
Pop quiz! True or false: the Internet is governed by laws that ensure that your ISP Internet Service Provider cannot censor or discriminate the websites and data that you view.
The answer is: not really. The Internet operates largely as a Common Carrier based on the expectations of customers and the companies’ need to meet those expectations. This is the same way transportation and telecommunications companies work. You wouldn’t expect your shipping service to charge you more for delivering science books than for detective novels, nor for your electricity company to charge you more when you use your computer than when you use your TV, if they use the same amount of power. They merely serve as “dumb terminals” that neither regulate nor discriminate what they deliver.
The problem is that the Internet, unlike the aforementioned industries, is not officially classified as a Common Carrier. Many people have been calling for Net Neutrality, which is the idea that all data on the Internet should be treated equally. Many ISPs have been lobbying against it.
The anti-Net Neutrality stance claims that this would thwart their attempts to create “fast lanes” for bandwidth so that Web sites accessed by many people, such as Facebook and YouTube, could reach everyone faster and provide cheaper Internet plans for the consumer.
What many people fear is the greed behind this insidious claim. ISPs wouldn’t make your Internet faster by building new, special wires for these Web sites, but rather by making everything else slower to give them priority. This also means that ISPs could intentionally slow down websites, then ask for money in exchange for adding them to the “fast lane.”
Not only would this cost the consumer and the producer more money we would pay to get access to the fast lane, websites would pay to be added to it and the meddling middle man getting all the profit, but this also threatens the most significant virtue of the Internet: its accessibility.
The Internet has fundamentally altered the way mankind communicates. During no other time in history has it been easier to immediately reach a global audience of billions. Imagine if Myspace would have paid ISPs so that Facebook couldn’t compete with it. Or if Encyclopedia Britannica would have paid to win over Wikipedia.
This is not just a paranoid worst-case scenario. This is something that we’re already starting to see. There have been reports in the past few months of Comcast throttling Netflix’s bandwidth and slowing down the popular video streaming website. Since Comcast just so happens to be a cable company, Netflix is its direct competitor. Either Netflix would pay up to get more speed, or users would simply get fed up and switch to TV. It’s a win-win for Comcast.
This issue has far greater implications than changing the way we view entertainment. The Internet remains the one channel through which people can communicate freely and everyone’s voice can be heard. Regardless of corruption in journalism or the media, you can always find sources online by real people. It’s very hard to silence information in a free and open Internet. One only needs to look back to the Arab Spring a few years ago, when the government tried to suppress and censor information, to see the importance of the Internet in these crucial revolutionary movements. This characterizes the term “Streisand effect,” which is defined as “the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.”
This effect has serious consequences, particularly in light of that recent example. The power to topple governments is at our fingertips. If we don’t act to defend Net Neutrality, we will lose it.
** If you want to learn more about Net Neutrality, this link leads to a video that details further resources and actions to take: www.bit.ly/SaveTheNet
Omar Shehata ’18 firstname.lastname@example.org is from Alexandria, Egypt. He majors in Computer Science.