Those of us outside the US may have observed their debates on net neutrality, and wondered whether it would affect us.
Even if it is something confined purely to the US, however, the loss of net neutrality there will affect people all over the world. But when people speak of the loss of net neutrality, there are many ways in which it has already been lost, or rather, it is an ideal that has never been fully realised.
This article helps to explain what it means for people in the US — Someone Finally Illustrated What The Loss Of Net Neutrality Really Looks Like, And You Won’t Like It:
Net neutrality has become a volatile, high-profile news story, and with good reason: Americans are in danger of losing it. But what is net neutrality, and why is it important? Why are some lawmakers fighting so hard to make it a thing of the past?
The answer is complex, rooted in technological progress, a changing economic landscape, and a society and culture that is seeing greater class divisions than at any other time in our history. Some in our government are determined to make the internet a profit-driven product, and while this may sound understandable in a capitalist society, the dangers are very real.
Aptly illustrated by this picture:
If you live in South Africa, say, and you post some family photos on Facebook, the loss of net neutrality in the US might mean that your cousin in the US may not be able to see them, because their ISP has decided to charge more for access to Facebook.
Of course even with net neutrality your cousin in the US might not have been able to see your photos, because Facebook’s algorithm already decides who gets to see what you post, and who doesn’t get to see it.
Think of another example. An academic researcher in South Africa posts a research query in a blog, trying to verify some fact, or get reactions to a conjecture or hypothesis. With net neutrality, anyone with a web connection can see the blog and respond to the post. But without net neutrality, an ISP can decide to make that particular blogging platform only accessible to some of its subscribers who pay extra for it.
Even without legal protection of “net neutrality”, there have been all kinds of attempts to corral users into a closed system. Facebook’s Messaging app is an example. Get people to use that, and people have to join Facebook to communicate with you. Others may have attempted the same thing, but it might have backfired on them. In an earlier post, The decline and decline of tumblr | Notes from underground, I noted that tumblr had gradually reduced the functionality of their site to make it a closed world. Perhaps they did this in the hope that they, like Facebook, might be able to lock users in to their site, though the actual effect was to remove the incentive for many people to visit their site at all. To lock people in successfully, you have to be big like Facebook, not small like tumblr.
We had something similar in South Africa. A few years ago people who used MWeb as their ISP found it difficult to access certain web sites, because MWeb was trying to lock them in and steer them towards its own offerings. I don’t know if they still do that, but there was quite an outcry at the time.
Something similar was seen back in the 1990s, when dial-up BBSs were popular. Telkom, whose phone lines were being used for it, wanted to charge more for data calls to BBSs than for voice calls, but the counter argument was that Telkom was a “common carrier” — their job was to provide the connections, for which they could charge, but the content of the calls was none of their business. The “common carrier” principle is the same principle as net neutrality — an ISP charges you for the internet connection and the band width you use, but the content of your connection is none of their business.
The “common carrier” principle provided a great deal of freedom, because anyone could set up a BBS, and so BBSs were a great enhancement to free speech. It was one of the factors that helped to topple a lot of dictatorial regimes in the annus mirabilis of 1989. It was how news of the Tianamnen Square massacre in China reached the rest of the world; pro-democracy activists used a BBS conference called ASIAN_LINK to communicate with each other and the rest of the world.
So the loss of New Neutrality takes the USA another step further away from the “free world” that it once claimed to be the leader of.