This essay is reprinted from Inside Higher Ed.
We have always been at war with the Internet. No, I’m not talking about trolls or flamewars but efforts to keep this globally interconnected digital space a place where freedom can thrive. What that freedom looks like, of course, is endlessly debatable. There’s the problem of the digital divide, the cultural factors that can make the internet friendly or hostile, and the fact that the values underpinning sentiments like John Perry Barlow’s libertarian Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace do not guarantee its citizens will act with wisdom or justice. Throw in mass surveillance and cybercrime and the fact that setting up your home router is just about as defeating as running your VHS system was thirty years ago. It’s complicated, but net neutrality is a foundational feature of the internet that we should preserve – and it’s under threat yet again.
Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality” more than a decade ago to mean the principle that the packets of information that travel across the internet should all be treated equally by providers regardless of where it originated, where it’s going, or what format it’s in. Some giant internet companies love this principle and want it preserved. It’s good for their business. Others want to favor some content over other content. If you are an internet service provider that also provides access to streaming video and cable channels you want to make your content easily accessible and attractive – and throttling back the competition works great. Or you may simply see it as a legalized protection racket that can bring in new revenue: if a website wants to reach its audience, it has to pay the middleman for the privilege. The big telecomms opposed to net neutrality want their activities on the internet to be as free as possible of regulation and argue (ridiculously) that forcing companies to treat content equally is a government takeover. The only freedom involved in rolling back net neutrality is the freedom of Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, a couple of phone giants, and a handful of smaller players to develop new ways to line their pockets while providing the public with less.
In the early days of the internet (remember those clunky phone couplers? Of course you don’t, you’re too young) we didn’t envision a world where cable companies would be our gateway to the internet, but that’s pretty much what’s happening. Cable companies are the broadband provider for over 90 percent of U.S. households, with AT&T and Verizon angling for their cut. The costs are too high, their service is terrible, they’re doing everything they can to consolidate and squelch competition, and now they want legal control over what we access on the internet.
I’ve complained before (including just last week) that too much of our experience of the internet is tied up in data-gathering businesses hidden behind an obscure TOS, that what we think of as free is paid for as the details of our lives are swept up in a giant data dragnet we don’t even see. But without the simple concept of net neutrality, the freedom of the internet will be even more constricted.
The problem for libraries and higher ed and nearly everyone else who uses the internet is that it may become prohibitively expensive to reach our audiences, provide our services, and communicate ideas. It will also make it harder for audiences to have access to information and culture that isn’t controlled by a handful of corporate interests. It’s not good for consumers. It’s not good for business. It’s not good for intellectual freedom or creative expression.
When every room in the house is on fire, it’s hard to muster the emotional energy to fill a bucket and try to put any of it out. The job seems too big, the stakes too high, the choice of which room to start on too wrenching. But this is important and it’s a battle worth fighting.