I originally wrote this post as an “anthology” for an English class assignment, but all along I had in mind the intention to crosspost it on my own blog. Everything in it represents my honest opinions, and I don’t exaggerate the importance of the issue of Net Neutrality. Every day I am finding more examples of what the Open Internet makes possible that I wish I had included here. But then I remember: As long as the Internet remains open, people will continue to make awesome things every day for all of us to immediately enjoy. I’d sure hate to lose that.
One of the most important debates going on in our world today is the one over whether to preserve Net Neutrality. Sadly but unsurprisingly, you probably don’t even know what Net Neutrality is or what the debate’s results will affect. This is because those who have the most to gain by letting this issue pass by without debate are the same people and companies who control the flow of information to you, through TV, newspapers, radio, and popular web sites. It’s a trivial matter for them to keep their TV and radio stations from broadcasting any information that they don’t want broadcasted. Now they want to have such restrictive control over the Internet, too. This is what the Net Neutrality debate is about. Let’s explore it.
Net neutrality is the idea that all online content should be treated indiscriminately. A neutral or open Internet is the only type we’ve had so far, where all websites—commercial or non-commercial, corporate or ad-free, established or up-and-coming—load at the same (relative) speed, and each user, after paying their ISP a flat fee, receives an all-access pass to digital content. An open Internet ensures a level playing field for online entrepreneurs and users alike.
The above concise definition is quoted from this article by Melissa Bollman of The Humanist. She goes on to discuss the current threat to Net Neutrality, as posed by big corporations who have much to gain monetarily by introducing discrimination to the ‘net. This threat is a serious one, and one that we must all be aware of for the sake of the future of our Internet.
The people who started the “Save the Internet” campaign recognized the dangers of ignoring this threat despite the service providers’ efforts to hide it from view. They have worked for years now to attempt to alert the public—that is, you and me—of these companies’ intentions to bastardize the Internet for their own short-term profit. In a nutshell, Internet service providers like Time Warner and Verizon want to charge content-creators extra money to be distributed to users at the normal speed; otherwise, those creators’ content will load more slowly or not at all. That practice will apply to everything from Google and Facebook to your mother’s blog or your friend’s small business website. It will be (and in some cases, already is) a restrictive and discriminatory practice, but it’s currently legal. Here’s Save the Internet’s 2007 video summing up the situation:
Brothers Hank and John Green (an eco-technology blogger and award-winning young adult author, respectively) in 2007 decided to use the Internet to reboot their own suffering brotherly relationship. Living hundreds of miles apart (in Montana and New York City, respectively), they felt they did not talk to each other enough. Their solution: to ban themselves from communicating with each other by text for an entire year, instead talking only by voice (over the phone) and (more significantly) by video blog. The “Vlogbrothers” started a channel on YouTube, each brother taking a turn every other weekday in 2007 making a video of himself talking to his sibling about a topic of his choosing.
Though the “Brotherhood 2.0” project started just between the two of them, the two brothers left the YouTube channel open for public view and quickly gained a loyal fan following. The message they ended up conveying, just through their conversations to one another, was that it is okay to be a “nerd”—that is, it’s okay to be enthusiastic, to be an expert, to care, and to be ready and willing to share your knowledge. This accidental movement (eventually dubbed “Nerdfighters”, “nerds who fight for awesome”) went against a dominant culture of “coolness”, of not caring, of leaving the thinking to others. It provided an outlet and a community to turn to for similarly-minded viewers worldwide. This community continues to thrive and grow today, and I’m proud to count myself among its members.
John and Hank have continued making videos since that first year, now just two or three a week (rather than every weekday). You’re about to watch a video from May 2010 in which Hank (after discussing the brothers’ Dad’s recent birthday) gives his own explanation of Net Neutrality—a principle that without which Brotherhood 2.0 wouldn’t have been possible and the Nerdfighter community would never have come to exist (and would probably cease to exist, if the principle were to be quashed):
Next is a video from John the previous month, in which we see a glimpse of some Nerdfighters and get a nerdy-but-informative explanation of a then-current issue typical of the older brother:
This video also demonstrates another important aspect of an open Internet: the ability of any citizen to make his or her voice heard on political issues, whether he has a lot of money or power or not (something that is not possible on our sadly non-open newspapers, magazines, radio, and television). Instead of having to trust the government or the advertiser-controlled news networks to give us the full story, we have other options to turn to if we choose. And that is what freedom of press is really supposed to be all about.
Let’s say you have a great idea for the next big website. Let’s say you’re like Mark Zuckerberg, who took his ideas for an online social network and harnessed the power of the open Internet to turn those ideas into a real, useful, valuable creations. All he needed was some programming knowledge and an extra computer to serve as a web server (which a friend lent him the money for). (Even less is needed today to start a full-fledged website.) He didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission. He didn’t need to pay his Internet service provider extra to distribute his content at a reasonable speed. He just needed an idea, some knowhow, and the open Internet. Services like Facebook and Wikipedia are used by millions of us every day, and yet they were started not by engineers at big companies but by individuals with nothing but their personal computers and Internet access. This is the power of the open Internet, of Net Neutrality.
Wikipedia, as you know, is a huge online encyclopedia of every kind of information imaginable, with every page editable by readers (in other words, the site’s audience are also its creators—something that was very rare before our open Internet came along). Wikipedia’s role in today’s information-driven societies is large; its influence is so large, in fact, that teachers and professors often need to specifically ban their students from using the site as an academic source (since the students, so used to going to Wikipedia for their information, find it unusual to imagine getting info from anywhere else).
Wikipedia’s history is interesting, and another example of a project that would not be possible without a net-neutral Internet. Click the logo below and read Wikipedia’s article on itself. Besides giving a thorough description of the site and its history, it serves as an example of what services like Wikipedia have to offer to their users:
Now imagine a world without Wikipedia.
The World Wide Web itself, the open platform which uses the Internet to provide a place for anyone who desires to post pages full of content and to view the content posted by others, was similarly started by an individual sitting at his computer and thinking about what he could do with the global network forming around him. Tim Berners-Lee saw the incredible value of such a universal, open Internet back in 1990 when he created the first website and web browser, and fears a day when that network is no longer open nor universal. In an article published just this past month, he gives his own wise thoughts on the Net Neutrality debate, and reminds us all of how and why the Web began:
As a technology geek and aspiring programmer, I pay close attention to the many useful bits of new hardware and software made available to us every day. I find it particularly amazing how many excellent, useful apps—both for our computers and for our smartphones—are being released on a daily basis, many for free! And those that aren’t free are usually only a few dollars, far less than those big corporations would want to charge you for the same product, to be sure. Dropbox, for example, is an incredibly useful syncing service that lets anyone keep a folder full of files totally up to date on every computer or Internet-connected device they use. The difference Dropbox has made in the lives of so many people who make their living creating content on computers (myself included) is unquantifiably large, and yet the service isn’t provided by any big, established company. And Dropbox is free unless you want to choose to pay for more than 2GB of storage space—an option that wouldn’t be possible if Dropbox’s developers had to pay Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and Time Warner each to get the “premium” content delivery speed for their users nationwide (let alone worldwide). But this is exactly what those providers want to do, and not because they can’t afford to keep things going the way they are now. It’s simply, and sadly, a ploy to increase their already large profit. For some perspective, read the following Reuters article (click the Comcast logo), which describes Comcast’s ridiculously large profit in just the last quarter of 2009 (hint: it was almost a billion dollars—and that’s just for three months of the year! There’s no hurting going on in Comcast’s bank accounts, or those of its executives.)
We all know what YouTube is and use it regularly, despite the fact that it has existed for less than four years. Yes, YouTube is another example of the open Internet fostering innovation and improvement to our lives. But more importantly, YouTube, like the World Wide Web as a whole, provides a platform for users of the Internet everywhere to make their voices—and, in some cases, their instruments—heard.
Independent musicians for years have been restricted from sharing their music with potential fans thanks to the restrictive, discriminatory nature of record companies’ usual practices (not unlike their fellow media giants—many of whom now actually own the record companies). Internet-based tools like YouTube allow musicians to bypass this old, restrictive system altogether, distributing their music easily, freely, and independently. Hank Green is one such musician (besides showering clothed on video, he also writes and sings nerdy songs). Another is Lauren O’Connell, a Fairport, NY native. This 21-year-old has no big record deals, no recording studio, no friends in high places. And yet she has three albums out on iTunes and elsewhere, a popular YouTube channel, and thousands of fans all over the world. She grew up with my girlfriend in Fairport, but I think I would have encountered her music anyway thanks to her popularity on YouTube (her videos have been featured on the front page multiple times). She’s an inspiration for aspiring independent musicians (or artists, or writers, or programmers, or interpretive dancers) everywhere.
Here Lauren is singing a song she also wrote. I don’t know what your taste in music is like, but by my judgement, it’s excellent stuff. Note that she’s in her living room, not some fancy company-owned studio. And yet this one video has over 625,000 full views:
If Net Neutrality is extinguished, our next Lauren O’Connells, Hank Greens, Mark Zuckerbergs, and Tim Burners-Lees will be extinguished, too, before they even have a chance to ignite. The next Facebook or Dropbox or YouTube will try to start but will be choked out by the service providers like Comcast so that they can promote their own products, and the products of those who can afford their high fees, instead.
So, how do we, as individuals, help to ensure our futures by keeping Net Neutrality around? It’s simple: we just have to make noise. Our still-mostly-functional democratic system will take care of the rest, as long as the volume of the noise we make is great enough. A few weeks ago, a hearing on Net Neutrality was held in New Mexico. More than 400 people turned up, and many of them shared their thoughts on Net Neutrality in the form of personal stories and poetry.
Also attending was Michael Copps, one of the five commissioners of the FCC (which, if you don’t know, is the governmental agency in charge of regulating and preserving open telecommunications in the US). Copps listened to his fellow citizens, and spoke himself, affirming his personal commitment to Net Neutrality (click the image for a description of his speech):
The event in New Mexico is only one of many events and rallies being organized all over the world by ordinary people like you and me who care about the future of our Internet. You don’t have to write poems and go to rallies to show your support, though. The open Internet itself makes it possible for us to make our voices heard, right now, about this issue and any other one we care about.
The decision-makers are listening, and Comcast’s well-paid lobbyists won’t quit whispering in their ears anytime soon. If enough of us speak, loudly and often enough, we will be heard by those whose job is to make decisions based on what we, the people, say.
The above Internet celebrities earned that title from their fans and not from media companies who served to profit from them (I’m looking at you, Justin Bieber). If, like those in the video, you care about the future of our Internet, take advantage of tools setup by your fellow citizens to contact the government officials who will soon be making these decisions (as soon as December, the rumors say):
Our society has improved so much since the introduction of the Internet. The future of that same Internet depends on you. Make your noise.
Just after I finished this piece, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced a proposed plan supposedly supporting Net Neutrality. Free Press calls this effort “fake”, and I tend to agree. The plan makes no real strides toward protecting any of the most important principles of the open Internet. Fortunately, only if three of the five commissioners of the FCC vote for the plan will it be put into action. Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Michael Copps, the latter of whom appears above, have in the past shown their commitment to the rights of the people, so hope is not lost. Take a look at what I have to say below about the importance of the open Internet, and decide for yourself whether you think it’s important to let the FCC and Congress know your own thoughts on this crucial issue.