On Feb. 19, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) will announce their decision on the legality of ‘Net Neutrality’. Net Neutrality is the reason the Internet works the way we know it to today. It ensures that all data on the Internet be considered equal. Much like how water or electricity sent to your house cannot be controlled by individual providers, data must also be allowed to flow to your home or workplace unrestricted. The result of free data movement has been an open Internet where smaller websites can compete with big name corporations’ websites, because the speed at which both sites can be accessed is the same. It has made the Internet a fertile ground for entrepreneurs and innovators, and Internet-savvy youth have benefited as a result, though we might not realize it. Sites that we take for granted such as YouTube, Facebook, and Tumblr all got their start as small websites, which, due to the principle of net neutrality, were able to compete with sites that were already established.
However, this is all poised to change. In January. 2014, Verizon sued the U.S. government, proposing that due to a technicality wherein Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are not classified as common carriers (i.e. services that can be regulated by the government because they serve the public, such as gas pipelines), the FCC has no right to regulate them, and as such, Net Neutrality does not apply. Since then, the FCC has been deliberating on whether ISPs are common carriers, and if Net Neutrality should be abolished. The consequences of this ruling will be monumental.
If Net Neutrality is abolished, it will allow ISPs to slow down or speed up the bandwidth of any website they want. ISP representatives have described this as creating “fast lanes.” Initially, this doesn’t sound too bad, but think about it this way: by abolishing net neutrality, ISPs can essentially strong-arm any company they want into paying them to maintain the speed at which their services can be accessed. If Netflix wants to stay in business and not lose subscribers due to poor buffering speeds, they would have to pay a premium. A competitor who can’t pay that premium would fail because they would not be able to compete. Given the way ISPs currently operate, this would be comparable to a form of extortion. According to the FCC, 67 percent of Americans have two or less ISPs to chose between. If Comcast wants to extort a bit of money out of Tumblr, they can, because if Tumblr doesn’t pay, over half of their customers will be experiencing frustrating or unusable Internet speeds to access their service, hurting their bottom line and potentially putting them out of business.
Upon further investigation, the issue becomes exceedingly complicated. One problem is that Comcast and Verizon are essentially monopolies regarding how little choice their consumers actually have in choosing a service provider. Another issue is that ISPs exert huge amounts of influence over the U.S. government. According to Bloomberg News, Comcast is the second largest corporate lobbyist of the U.S. government, just behind Northrop Grumman, a defense contractor responsible for aerospace systems, electronic systems, information systems, and technical services for the U.S. military. Comcast lobbies the U.S. government second only to the guys making helicopters and jets for the air force. (Think about the implications of that for a second.) Comcast spent $18,810,000 on lobbying alone in 2013. Their influence goes beyond lobbying money, though. Current FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is a former lobbyist himself for telecommunication companies. Now he’s in charge of the government office that regulates them. I would argue that this is a little more than a potential conflict of interest.
So, a decision that effects the very foundation of the Internet is happening in a week’s time, and no one seems to be talking about it here at Skidmore. I can only speculate as to why that is, but I think political satirist John Oliver put it best in saying, “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” This is a shockingly true statement. For example, look at the Edward Snowden leaks. The outcry against government surveillance has been muted at best, because the actual legislation governing electronic surveillance and data collection is boring. Cable news has been slow to report on Net Neutrality or Snowden.
My larger point is, groundbreaking things are going on in our world, both domestically and internationally, and yet we seem to be confined to only the problems we can make sense of. Large public outcry seems limited to issues that are promoted by cable news, or ones that we can take polarizing opinions on. Take any hot social issue of our time, from minimum wage to gay marriage. An us vs. them mentality sets in, it becomes easy to vilify the opposing side, and outcry on both ends is loud and zealous.
However, consider issues that are more difficult to take opposing sides on; issues in which there is no villain with a human face. What about shadowy corporations exerting absurd amounts of control on our ‘government of the people’? What about corporations maintaining the power to enforce their religious beliefs over their workers and their healthcare? This list could go on and on.
These issues are complicated, relevant beyond belief, and seem to be largely ignored. Where is the media coverage of those matters? Where are the protests at all? Where are the discussions, activism, and calls for change? I challenge the citizens of the U.S. and students of Skidmore to be better rounded in our political activism and global literacy. I challenge us to reject sensationalized stories of modern news, and to become more active and knowledgeable both domestically and internationally. It can be easy to forget or become overwhelmed by the many problems of the world, and there are no easy answers to most of them, but for the sake of our future, we have to try.