Net Neutrality Will Destroy the Internet  – And Not in a Good Way

Richard Wallace

There are many reasons why the internet should probably be destroyed. It’s warping our minds and turning us into restless children. It’s giving us access to excesses of information and levels of gratification which go against our nature as humans, rendering us flabby and purposeless things, soppy-eyed and weak from the millet of comfort. It’s exposing our basest savageries, tearing at the fabric of civilised society, making trolls and monsters of the meek, selling us as data-imprints to hungry monopolies, upending structures and traditions in unpredictable ways, unhooking us from the roadmaps of history and forcing us into a hard fork of post-information politics, at the crux of which appears to be a smoking nuclear popcorn kernel about to explode. For the sake of everything that is good and just in the world, the internet should be put back in its tin.

The good news is that the proposed U.S. net neutrality repeal will have that exact effect: it will destroy the internet. But not totally and thoroughly, for the moral good of the species. In predictable fashion, its proponents are seeking a non-neutral internet for exactly the wrong reasons. Essentially, they hope to transform the internet into a hyper-commercial space dominated by the large communications providers, like Comcast and Verizon (scandalously, as John Oliver’s recent monologue points out, Comcast are the second-biggest government lobbyists in America in terms of spending, while Verizon have been all but caught out bottlenecking Netflix streaming speeds in order to give themselves the competitive edge during service negotiations).

By removing the level playing field that net neutrality demands, proponents of the repeal essentially hope to turn the internet from a communication tool defined by users to a large-scale content platform presided over by a handful of de facto editors in the form of money-hungry ISPs. The principle that has long defined the internet will be neutered, carved up and sacrificed to the private market, if the repeal is voted through in December.

For all its problems, it’s almost impossible to imagine a life without total, democratically-accessed connectivity. There’s no question that we’ve opened a Pandora’s box, and our paranoia about being spied on by webcam hackers and eavesdropped through smartphone microphones show that we have huge concerns about data privacy which clearly need to be addressed. But unless you, dear reader, happen to be the chief exec of an ISP, these changes are not designed with your best interests in mind, let alone your safety. Even Amazon and Google, some of the most suspiciously monopolistic media companies in the world, agree that the proposed changes are beyond the pale. Once internet service providers have the opportunity to become gatekeepers of how our content is delivered, little will remain of what we know of the internet.

Photo: Martin Krolikowski / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

One worry is the possibility of a “tiered” internet — one in which users can pay to get better access to certain sites and services. The thinking behind the repeal is to make the market more competitive and foster “innovation” — presumably meaning technical innovation when it comes to improving service speeds. But unless you have total trust that ISPs will never abuse their new powers by directing traffic, this will come at the expense of start-ups and new businesses, who will be massively vulnerable to the monopoly of ISPs. The providers will have the option to favour established services and choke out the competitors, and even if they’re not technically supposed to use them to those ends, who will regulate them? Is a slightly faster Netflix stream worth trading away the truly innovative environment that allowed Netflix — and Deliveroo, Uber etc. — to thrive?

Not to mention the social and moral implications of removing free access to everybody and replacing it with a model in which wealthy users have better access than the less well off. In the current political climate, this will do little to help deal with inequality. Part of the reason the internet is such an innovative space is that pretty much anyone can, in theory, take part. If it becomes exclusive, what was it all for? Did we undertake enormous, paradigm-shifting tech projects simply to enrich corporations, or to genuinely advance a powerful social tool (which then begets further innovation?) It seems that at the heart of this issue is some confusion about what innovation actually means. Empowering a handful of enormous companies to pour maximum resources into developing minor service improvements while stamping on smaller companies who can innovate nimbly using the very tool the ISPs seek to drain of its potency is, frankly, a cynical and greedy attitude, and not what we should aspire to. Growth, after all, comes not from short-sighted cash-ins but genuine long-term improvements and innovations. The internet should not be allowed to become like a rail operator or utility provider — a monopoly, squeezing its captive audience a little more every year.

Even if the internet itself is less comparable to, say, a normal utility provider and closer to one designed solely to pump industrial quantities of fetid bilgewater into your living room. We’re happy to exist ankle-deep in fatuousness and muck, but we sure as hell shouldn’t be made to pay to decide how quickly it spews out.