USA Today columnist Michael Wolff asserts that nobody is neutral in the net neutrality debate in his piece. Fair enough. He gives a succinct overview of the forces driving the net neutrality debate, but his conclusion seems ignorant of the role the net has played and continues to play in support of free speech worldwide.
Wolff provides a quick rundown of most of the major players and their motives. In short, cable companies are interested in keeping the FCC from regulating broadband as they do telephone service, so that they can selectively charge owners of websites different rates for different faster/slower delivery of their data. Companies whose customers access large amounts of online data don’t want Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, etc. to single them out, either by name (e.g. Netflix) or by category (e.g. providers of video on demand) for higher rates. A third group, which Wolff labels “tech-centric ideologues,” opposes legislation which permits telcos and cable companies to increase rates or decrease levels of service based on the type or source of data, as such legislation would give Internet providers legal grounds to throttle the communications of organizations, people or ideas which run counter to their aims.
The article frames the debate as a battle between large companies whose motives are purely financial, with a recent surge of activism driven by a comedy sketch gone viral. Wolff avoids mentioning the Electronic Frontier Foundation, however, which has played the largest role in promoting net neutrality since long before it entered public awareness. This is where the article falls short. The social implications of having a neutral net are not secondary to the financial motives of the companies involved in the debate. Rather, the current skirmish is one part of an ongoing effort to keep the Internet free of censorship.
The article concludes that “the Internet isn’t about freedom,” and that it’s “fast becoming the TV business.” At best, this statement is jaded; at worst it represents an ignorance of the Internet’s social and economic importance. In two decades, the Internet has become an integral part of our economy, with the largest corporations and the smallest businesses dependent on it for every aspect of their operations. It has also become a critical tool for social change, facilitating the freedoms of speech and assembly which have enabled protest movements to transpire in parts of the world which have never known democracy. To allow those entrusted to manage such a critical part of our infrastructure to arbitrarily limit access to it – whether they are corporations motivated by a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders or an autocratic government driven to quash dissent – has long-term ramifications for our economy and our individual liberties, and a scope far greater than the present spat between cable companies and Internet video providers.
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