Why net neutrality is an important democratic virtue
We’re told by politicos, pundits and internet providers themselves that access to the net is crucial to our educational achievement, future prosperity and ability to be self-governing. Yet while this digital highway is deemed vital to our nation’s well-being, access to it is not offered as a public service – i.e., an investment in the common good. Instead, it is treated as just another profit center for a few corporations – so few, that selling broadband access to the World Wide Web has become a very lucrative source of what economists call “monopoly rents,” the ability of corporations in a non-competitive market to extract excess profits from customers.
Even with the monopoly rents, the great virtue of the internet is that no one controls its content. This digital communication technology has been so spectacularly successful and so socially valuable because it is a wide-open, democratic forum, accessible on equal terms to all who want to put information, images, opinions, etc. on it, or to download any of the same from it. Since its invention, the guiding principle behind the use of this liberating technology has been that no corporation, government, religion or other controlling power should be its gatekeeper, impeding the free and equal flow of communication to and from those who use it (yes, there is some censorship around the world, as well as here at home, but clever users commonly find their way around it).
This open-access tenet is dubbed “net neutrality,” meaning the system doesn’t care if you’re royalty or a commoner, an establishmentarian or a rebel, a brand-name corporation or an unknown start-up, a general or a grunt, a billionaire or a poverty-wage laborer – you are entitled to equal treatment in sending or getting information in the worldwide web-o-sphere. That’s an important democratic virtue. As we’ve learned in other spheres, however, corporate executives are not ones to let virtue stand in the way of profit, and today’s telecom tycoons are no different. For some time, they’ve been scheming to dump the idea of net neutrality, viewing its public benefit as an unwarranted obstacle to their desire to grab greater profits. Here’s their scheme:
– Rather than having one big broadband “freeway” open for transporting everyone’s internet content, the ISP giants intend to create a special system of lanes for high-speed traffic.
– This express lane will be made available to those who want to rush their information/viewpoints/programs/etc. to the public and to get greater visibility for their content by having it separated from the mass clutter of the freeway.
– The ISPs will charge a premium price to those who want their content transported via this special internet toll-lane system.
By creating this first-class fare, the providers elevate themselves from mere transporters of content to exalted robber barons. They would be empowered to decide (on the basis of cash), which individuals, companies and so forth will be allowed in the premium lane of what is supposed to be a democratic freeway. The “winners” will be the ISP giants that would reap billions from this artificial profit lane and the powerful content providers (e.g., Disney, the Koch Brothers, Walmart, the Pentagon and Amazon) that can easily pay top dollar to ride in the privileged lane (and deduct the ticket price from their corporate taxes).
The losers, obviously, will be the vast majority of internet users: the dynamic cosmos of groups, small companies, and other content providers without the deep pockets needed to buy their way out of the slow lanes which ISP monopolists could intentionally make even slower; and the broad public that will have its access to the full range of internet offerings blocked by the neon glare of those flashing their purchased messages in the fast lanes, limiting what we’re allowed to read, watch, listen to and interact with on our computers, smartphones and TV screens.
The biggest loser, though, would be the internet itself, which would be made to surrender its determinedly democratic ethic to the plutocratic rule of corporate profiteers. Go to http://BattleForTheNet.com and see what steps you can take to help put a stop to this corporate coup.