The Larger Implications of Net Neutrality

In the above YouTube interview featuring Tim Wu – Professor of Law at Columbia University – Wu talks about net neutrality as being the design principle of the Internet. Net neutrality encourages freedom of speech and unhindered access to both information and entertainment. Wu contrasts the Internet with broadcast, cable, and phone companies that have historically determined what the consumer has access to. Advocating for net neutrality, Wu thinks a noncommercial network is crucial to upholding the democratic values of the Web. I wholeheartedly agree. Commenting on a prescient issue, Wu also mentions the possibility of a New Media collapse similar to the Financial crisis of 2008. In this scenario, Internet companies that go bust will disappear, and big corporate entities like AT&T or Google will approve content. More disturbing, Wu notes that even personal computers could disappear in the future, as the security issues of computer networks might be “solved” by the government through controlled obsolescence. The Internet, then, would turn into something akin to a “vacation package,” in which consumers pay an exorbitant fee to access information. These are all scary possibilities, and should compel individuals to campaign for network neutrality.

Turkish writer Zeynep Tufekci has more recently noted in What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson that net neutrality is a basic human rights issue. In the wake of the Ferguson riots, the response from Twitter propelled the incident into the national eye. Tufekci showed that local journalists were harassed by the police in public places, and the police department relied on unnecessary militarization of the streets. As a foreign observer, Tufekci also showed that the events in Ferguson were taking place while thousands were watching, not only in the U.S., but around the world. “Egyptians and Turks were tweeting tear gas advice,” she says. Indeed, sites like Twitter seem to have been the only spaces on the Internet where Ferguson was writ large, as algorithmic filtering kept the events buried on Facebook. Acting to preserve net neutrality, then, is simultaneously engaging in a fight to preserve cities like Ferguson. If it was not for Twitter, individuals outside of St. Louis would likely have never heard of Michael Brown. Tufekci argues that net neutrality gives the average citizen a competitive edge, so to speak; an opportunity to be aware of places like Ferguson, suffering from racial discrimination, police overreaction, and wage inequality.

Two weeks ago, the Federal Communications Commission ruled to preserve the Internet as a “Platform for Innovation, Free Expression and Economic Growth.” The new rules inherent in the Open Internet Order provide further safeguards against broadband providers taking precedence over smaller Internet companies and creating a “fast lane” to their content. In other words, it will continue to be just as easy to access Twitter as it will be to access any content provided by AT&T, Google, etc. Based on your Internet Service Provider, then, the speed and efficiency in navigating websites will be about equal, depending on the data packets you are downloading. Without drowning in the legalese of the document, the larger implications of this new ruling will continue to fight against the restrictions mentioned by Wu above. The point is that network neutrality is an important provision for any free society in the Information Age. Without free access, there are much greater opportunities for governmental abuse.

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