After the Internet: When Net Neutrality Will Be a Moot Point

The phrase net neutrality has been kicking around for a while now, and you likely find yourself in one of three different camps:

  1. You have no idea what I’m talking about
  2. You have a passing knowledge about the issue but don’t really care
  3. You know what the phrase means, and you desperately hope the FCC does the right thing

No matter which of the above groups you identify with, I’ll say again here what I’ve been saying for a while now: the outcome of our ongoing net neutrality debates will fundamentally change the Internet—no matter how things end up shaking out.

And just so you know, the FCC is set to vote on net neutrality strategy TOMORROW. That’s Thursday, February 26th. And, barring any more Republican interference, the vote will likely proceed as planned.

Before we go too much further, I’ll try to describe in brief the problems that net neutrality is designed to fix, and what will happen if the FCC doesn’t listen to the will of the people this week.

What’s At Stake Here?

Corporations such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon have spent unimaginable amounts of money over the years to game the industry that they now share a near-monopoly on. The American laws that govern Internet infrastructure, development, and traffic were largely written behind closed doors by politicians sympathetic to corporate interests. And by “sympathetic” I mean “They were paid to do so.”

The result is a system where a very small handful of Internet providers get to effectively shut out emerging competitors, extort money from content providers like Netflix, and effectively bend the Average American Consumer over a barrel while they’re at it.

To put it another way, Americans enjoy Internet speeds that are currently ranked 27th in the world—and we pay far, far more for the privilege. Our ISPs are holding us back on a national level.

Net neutrality (described in full here) would do away with this treacherous and manipulative business model and replace it with something simpler and fairer. In effect, the proposed FCC changes would classify the Internet (including mobile broadband) as it does other public utilities. It would pave the way for smaller companies to enter the fray, it would increase competition among the incumbent providers, and it would start to erode the monolithic and customer-hostile community-wide monopolies held by the likes of Comcast and Verizon.

If you’re a certain kind of American, you’re probably thinking something like this: “Why would I want the government to regulate the Internet? I don’t want the government putting their hands on the Internet—they can’t even run a healthcare website effectively.”

That’s wrong on a bunch of levels, but don’t take my word for it. Corynne McSherry, the director of intellectual property at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, confirms: “The FCC is not regulating the Internet; the FCC is looking to regulate broadband service.”

Let’s be clear: net neutrality has nothing to do with Big Brother (or Obama) taking over the Internet, watching your every move, or threatening free speech. Nobody cares what the hell you post on Facebook except Facebook (and only because they can sell you something based on that knowledge), and possibly the NSA.

No; net neutrality is the FCC’s very carefully considered position on preserving the Internet as we know it. It is designed with the American consumer in mind. It is how the government, and the American people, will rescue the Internet’s destiny from its incredibly inept stewards in the telecommunications industry.

And that’s a good, good thing. Any questions? Good. Let’s move on.

After the Internet

I’ve wondered for a while what the most radical “solution” for net neutrality might look like. Reclassifying the Internet as a public utility has been touted as the “nuclear option,” but it’s actually pretty tame. It doesn’t set out to shackle our incumbent Internet providers; it simply forces them to compete, rather than collude, with each other. You may recall from basic economics that competition is one of the keys to maintaining a healthy economy.

But what if we could cut out the middle-man altogether? What if the Internet was simply a ubiquitous, worldwide service, and Internet providers were a thing of the past?

It’s an exciting concept, and one that will change our lives in countless ways. The practical realities, however, are quite complicated. Companies like Google, along with fabulously rich people like Richard Branson (Virgin) and Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX), have been looking into ways that this could be accomplished, including deploying satellites or even blimps to bring the Internet directly to those places in the world that currently don’t have Internet access of any kind. The result would be a single, massive, ubiquitous, and much more reliable system than what we have now.

It would destroy the geographical boundaries that have been holding us back for far too long, and it would elevate the conversation of Internet regulation out of the quagmire of local, state, and federal governments and make it a matter of international law. It would eliminate or reduce our dependency on “terrestrial” infrastructure and the messy politicking that comes with it. Not only that, but it would effectively provide a way to get around all kinds of content restrictions and filters that are typically applied at the national level, such as what we see with China’s famous “Great Firewall.”

In short, we’d finally have one Internet, and everybody on planet earth would have the same chance to access it. Think about that for a moment. It probably sounds like something out of Star Trek or another far-future tale, but the groundwork is already being laid.

We’re entering uncharted territory here, folks. It’s become clear to the American people and, thankfully, to the right parties within the Federal government, that preserving a free and open Internet is not a political issue, but a human one.

Image Credit: Flickr (via Creative Commons License)

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