Spoiler alert: My master's thesis revolves around the tender topic of Net Neutrality -- a topic that has remained a controversy since 2007. In 2008, I was tasked with writing a paper that, in as neutral (nudge nudge) a tone as possible, provided a background of this issue and a prognosis for its solution. Little did we know that such a solution would be at least seven years in the making.
In my thesis, I aim to manipulate participants' perceptions of the risks and payoffs involved in a hacking scenario...or more specifically, a call to hacktivism (e.g., Anonymous). The (entirely hypothetical and yet absolutely plausible) scenario provided? A rise to action against Net Neutrality.
And yet over the weeks since I've proposed -- and begun to execute -- this experiment, I've been shocked at the responses I've received from colleagues and students:
"Wait...wouldn't Anonymous be for Net Neutrality?"
"I thought Net Neutrality was a good thing!"
"Do you even know what you're talking about?" < -- Do not ask me this question again.
Finally, after receiving a similar question for at least the dozenth time, I turned to Wikipedia for the most succinct and up-to-date summary of the ongoing warfare over a free and open Internet.
What I encountered was a disappointingly biased view of the issue that might have, for all we know, been written by undercover FCC operatives and Comcast interns. So please allow me to break this down in alignment with an angle that might be equally biased, but at least in favor of the 99%.
The case in favor of Net Neutrality
Net Neutrality first arose in an attempt to prevent the control of the Internet by third-parties who would use Internet access in their favor. Such parties would include, but not be limited to, Verizon, Comcast, AT&T...you get the picture. Broadband and cellular companies with large investments in the Capitol, and companies who are (unsurprisingly) trusted much less than even our government (source 1, source 2). Side note: Why aren't anti-AT&T and anti-Cox bumper stickers more common? I'd support that movement.
In other words, Net Neutrality proponents originally fought the very real possibility that the government and large broadband-providing corporations would try to "own" the Internet and, in doing so, limit access to certain content based on the interests of the parties at hand. If you were an AT&T customer, the idea would be that you would not have access to competitor websites such as Verizon and T-Mobile. The Internet, in all its glorious freedom and expansiveness, would cease to be free.
The case against Net Neutrality
However, one must keep in mind the nature of the groups who lobbied so avidly in favor of Net Neutrality. The FCC, for example, had its own interests at heart -- and when paired with some of the largest donors in Washington, D.C., the public should have known immediately that something was up.
It became gradually clearer over the following years that those in favor of Net Neutrality were seeking to provide access to a free and just Internet, but not an equal one.
For example, pull up Google in a separate tab or browser window. Enter something simple as a search term, like "Internet". I'm willing to bet that the first three results on your search returns page are ads -- for me, I see:
Century Link Internet: High-Speed Internet From $19.95/mo With Bundled Services, Order Now!
DISH Network Internet: Get High Speed Internet from DISH. Multiple Plans To Fit Your Needs! 24/7 Technical Support - Speeds up to 10mbps
Frontier Internet: Order Internet Now At $19.99/mo & Get a Free Router + No Contract! Free Isntallation* - Free Activation
* No, Frontier didn't bother to spell-check their Google ads.
In this particular example, this means that the three top spots for Google returns -- in other words, the most relevant results for your query -- were pushed farther down the page to make way for paid ads with lesser relevance. (A good example for just how small ad relevance can be, consider the 2011 JC Penney controversy, in which no search term could escape the tacking on of irrelevant JC Penney clothing and home décor ads. Google was busted for opening their pockets so widely, JC Penney was busted for pouring so much money into those open pockets, and most of us have distrusted Google ads ever since.)
And now let's apply this example to Net Neutrality.
The FCC and Comcast, among others, were in favor of Net Neutrality to make the Internet a tool and source of income: Companies could pay to increase the speeds with which Internet consumers could access their webpages. Ben & Jerry might pay a certain tier of money so that their site would load faster than that of a small, local ice cream chain just around the corner. In other words, by making the Internet "free" to all, proponents sought to decrease how fairly this freedom was distributed. Fast lanes would aid only the companies who could afford them; slow lanes would plague smaller companies, start-up groups, and -- a notable example from our own president -- high school students' blogs.
Large, successful companies would grow larger and more successful; small, struggling-to-surface-in-a-corporate-owned-society groups would flounder and drown.
Recent news from the FCC
Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC, has made news yet again regarding Net Neutrality -- and this time, things are starting to look promising. Two days ago, Wheeler announced a change of heart. He stated that:
Originally, I believed that the FCC could assure internet openness through a determination of “commercial reasonableness” under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. While a recent court decision seemed to draw a roadmap for using this approach, I became concerned that this relatively new concept might, down the road, be interpreted to mean what is reasonable for commercial interests, not consumers. That is why I am proposing that the FCC use its Title II authority to implement and enforce open internet protections. Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open Internet protections ever proposed by the FCC.”
In other words, the public's outrage was loud enough to attract the attention (and self-serving interests) of the original proponents of Net Neutrality, and the result may be a good one: Depending on the vote on February 26th, our Internet may remain free, neutral, fair, and equally accessible for and by all.