I realized today that I’m tired of fighting for Net Neutrality.
It’s not that I don’t believe in Net Neutrality. I do. It’s an obvious thing to me that internet access is a utility, like sewage treatment and water and electricity. It’s obvious to me that it should be a materials-neutral line into people’s homes or business, not caring if you’re accessing Netflix or Wikipedia or CNN or a private blog. Content is content; it should cost similar flat fees regardless of how it’s delivered or where it’s being delivered from or to.
It’s that I’m tired of fighting for Net Neutrality. We’ve won this fight several times, but every time we ‘win’, almost immediately I start getting messages announcing that I have to step up to fight again — I have got give more money, make more phone calls, write more emails, write more letters. I haven’t succeeded with all my previous victories; I keep winning the battle but losing the war — the logistics of the fight are wearing me out completely.
It’s clear to me that the issue is not obvious to some people. Not only that, but it’s obvious to a good many other people, and other corporations, with a lot more money and time than I have, that of course there should be Net Partiality. That the Internet, rather than being a level playing field, should be a biased playing field, as though it were an EA Games rollout where richer players get to have Darth Vader and poorer players have to suck it up being a lowly ensign on board the Tantive IV — the sci-fi equivalent of opera’s spear-carriers, destined to die gruesomely in Scene I.
Some of this “Net Partiality” makes sense. Enormous amounts of money have flowed to the technology companies that have figured out how to use the Internet — for search, for commerce, for wayfinding, for management, for accounting, for presentation, for media saturation. Like the great mercantile combines of the Roman Empire, sending ships and carts over road and pirate-free sea-lanes, these individuals and companies have made a fortune through the commercial traffic entering and leaving their marketplaces. It’s natural that the road-managers want a share of that trade.
But, just as the Roman roads roads were built by legions as a tool of empire, we should remember that the Internet was originally DARPANet — a weapon of war constructed by American military troops and experts, and paid for with the taxes imposed on American citizens and residents, and with the tribute of her far-flung dependents. The private corporations that currently control public access to the roads are being asked to maintain a nation-state’s infrastructure with personal tolls levied on users. It’s not a perfect analogy by any means; maybe it’s not even an accurate analogy. Bear with me.
Even if I’m operating with an inaccurate analogy, I am increasingly of the opinion that this fight for Net Neutrality is not one that I am going to win. In one form or another, this fight has been ongoing for nearly thirty years — first slowly and quietly, then with increasingly celerity and viciousness. The innovators — the mercantile combines of the Roman roads — keep making more and more money. The road-managers keep making the same sums, plodding along as their workforce ungratefully does the equivalent of filling in potholes and widening roads, all the while casually obstructing traffic and engaging in petty indignities against the travelers. Surely, they must think, some of this money traveling on our highway must belong to us?
It feels like Net Partiality is the equivalent of bandit gangs on the highways, and it’s a sign of the times we live in that the bandit gangs are able to lobby the government for the right to rob travelers and marketplaces legally. Maybe they’re erecting toll-booths on the roads, maybe it’s all going to be done with uniformed inspectors at the tool boots and guards in neat uniforms checking passes at the doors… but somehow I doubt it.
So I find myself wondering now, what would I pay for, if the whole Internet was not available? Because I must assume that sooner or later, whether for six months or six years, Net Neutrality will be in abeyance, and a different set of rules will apply.
So I’m left to wonder what I would pay for as a consumer or user.
Would I pay for Twitter? Or Tumblr? Access to Amazon? What about Facebook? Would I pay for the blogs of other folks I know on WordPress? Pinterest? What about Hulu or Netflix? PayPal? Etsy?
From the perspective of the ISPs, you don’t want to throttle to death any website that is making money from the internet. But if there’s a source of income at either end of the stream, chances are that you want a piece of it. You don’t want all of the profits of every transaction but you want some of them.
Actually, given the kinds of money that we’re talking about, billions of dollars across every marketplace, maybe you don’t mind if you strangle a few businesses to death with a Net Partiality regime… as long as you get to empty their coffers first.
There are different implications when I think of myself as a business person, of course. Right now I derive income from having books on Amazon, and from having an Etsy page, and from occasional donations to this blog (Hi! — like this content? Make a contribution.) So any Net Partiality agreement that throttles these sites in any way also throttles me. There’s negligible income from all three today, but that might not always be so. Yet if I’m charged some sort of a premium to host content, in order to reach a smaller audience that is itself paying for access, then NO, this is definitely not worth it to me at the moment.
But that might not always be so.
I run this blog, too, under my own domain name. If this domain name or its host gets throttled in some fashion, do I scale back? Shut down? Stop blogging? Suck it up and pay the fee? How do I change my content, to account for the fact that I would need a larger number of contributors to account for the higher expenses of maintaining the site, and keeping it open. Will my readers care enough about the content that they will continue to visit? Will they pay the fees on their end to continue visiting?
Archival and Community Implications
I use the internet in part to access translations of public-domain classical and medieval works that have been online for decades or years. Ideally, I continue to use those archives online to access these books and materials and translations. However, in a Net Partiality milieu, I can no longer access materials this way. I have to rely on a personal archive, which has to exist before Net Partiality is implemented. So in an extant Net Neutrality milleu, I have to behave as if Net Partiality is soon to become the law, and create personal, rather than cloud-based, archives of material that I want to access again and again.
There’s a community implication here, too. I’m a member of Toastmasters and other fraternal groups. Toastmasters is in the process of shifting all of its education program online, with access to materials only through an online “portal”. What if the Toastmasters “portal” gets throttled? Will I pay a premium to access that? Will I pay a premium on my membership fees to Toastmasters to pay their ISP not to throttle their incoming traffic? Will I pay a premium to my own ISP to access Toastmasters’ online content?
Related to this, what about online coursework? Should I pay a premium to a college or university, on top of my tuition fees, to allow their incoming traffic to flow more easily? What about paying a premium to my ISP so they don’t block access to my online coursework? Will they charge me a particularly, especially-high fee during exam periods? What will prevent them from doing so?
News and Citizenship Implications
If I can only get news through limited sources as a result of pay walls or Net Partiality, then I have greater challenges to my efforts to be a good citizen, as well. It will be harder to stay informed, harder to balance sources of information against one another, harder to know what’s going on.
All in all, it feels like Net Partiality will be a loss for me, personally. I don’t get much out of it at all, and everyone will expect me to pay more for my internet service, and for the services which will now be squeezed for cash to pay for their position in the hierarchy.
What is also clear is that there are (some, not many) clear steps I can take while Net Neutrality is still the norm, to avail myself of existing resources that may cease to exist later: research materials, design guidance, technical data, snail mail addresses of friends I know from the Internet.
But I should assume that the fight for Net Neutrality will be lost at some point; that the benefits (and particularly the profits) of Net Partiality to some partisans are so enormous that they will continue to fight for it, until the logistics of the proponents of Net Neutrality fail. Whether they remain in control for six months or six years or six decades — whether they win in six days or six years is immaterial… they will get what they want, and they will fight tooth and nail to keep it after they get it.
I have to plan, as “the little guy”, for the end of the current regimen of Net Neutrality. And, I suspect, so do you.