FCC Threatens Internet’s Level Playing Field

In my 2002 book, Cybering Democracy: Public Space and the Internet,  I proposed that the Internet was not only a public space, but also ripe for social interaction and democratic participation. I argued that the Internet’s inherent structure — standards by which web sites are created, the way traffic flows, the way information is distributed and equally accessible — all create a level playing field. This above all is what I love about the Internet and why I’ve enjoyed having it as my playing field and also as the place where I do some of my work and where I share some of my writing. The issue of ‘Net Neutrality’ is about protecting that level playing field, about treating all information as equal.

In proposing to allow cable companies and other Internet service providers (ISPs) to create two-tier web traffic flows, the FCC is threatening to dismantle that structure. When you force content providers to pay more to have their data put on the Internet fast lanes, you redefine the Internet’s public space. That’s why the FCC ruling is fundamentally anti-democratic.

Twenty years from now, this contest will be moot. Wireless connectivity is becoming more prevalent every day and other infrastructures for P2P communications that are being developed now will grow like weeds. These are the virtual places to which the unruly and the will-not-be-ruled will naturally gravitate. Even now, the corporate giants trying to pass their greed off as sound network management are gasping their last breath.

So why bother entering the fray? Because twenty years is a long time to wait. A lot can happen in the next two decades to widen that gap between the haves and the have-nots. Democracy isn’t something we Americans — or any citizens — have. It’s something you have to work at and maintain. The idea, furthermore, that the U.S. is an exemplar is about as far-fetched as the notion that the Electoral College is a democratic institution or that lobby groups and campaign financing are about giving citizens a voice.

The tragedy of being an American citizen is that instead of moving closer to the ideal of democracy, we are every day being driven back from it. The FCC ruling allowing ISPs to throttle back speeds for non-payers is one of those policies that is driving us back. Anyone who says this ruling isn’t anti-democratic is either a liar or an idiot. That claim is as disingenuous as pretending that cable companies aren’t telecommunications services.

John Oliver’s funny take on the issue comes just short of calling the ruling what it is — a form of government sanctioned extortion by Comcast, Time-Warner, and other monopolies. You also have to love the way he calls out the trolls and directs them over to the FCC website to leave comments.

I don’t know if those comments will make a difference. And I’m optimistic that eventually it won’t matter. But it matters for now. Net Neutrality isn’t just a vague concept. It’s about democracy, stupid!

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