The Internet, according to much of the Internet, is about to be ruined: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is reportedly going to propose that companies like Netflix or YouTube be legally allowed to pay Internet providers like Comcast and—will there be any other providers besides Comcast in five years?—to ensure that their stuff reaches people faster and more reliably than companies who don’t pay. Death and destruction await.
This would violate a principle blandly known as “net neutrality,” which is that all kinds of bits, from all kinds of places, should be treated the same way as it moves across the Internet; if you’re a Time Warner Cable customer, in other words, everything should arrive at your computer equally slowly, no matter who sent it. But for most, this notion is so numbingly abstract—does it mean that I can’t FaceTime as well as Skype? Well, maybe—and the response from the tech press and nerd forums so maddeningly grave—”the Internet will literally die!”—each of the many times that it has been threatened over the last several years, that it’s been hard to tell when, precisely, the Internet as we know it is going to devolve into a series of tiny weird Internet fiefdoms, sort of like that Justin Timberlake movie In Time, where the world had become a series of bad puns about time and was divided into discrete zones which only the truly rich (or at least truly handsome) could travel between speedily and freely. This “messaging issue,” I guess you might call it, is sort of a problem if you believe that the Internet is on the verge of being ruined by cable and phone companies, for really real this time, now that a former cable lobbyist is in charge of the FCC.
Tim Wu, who coined the phrase “net neutrality” eons ago, back before it became a wan rallying cry plastered on display banners, has perhaps come up with a better way to talk about it: Allowing giant tech companies with vast resources to pay for better access to people “threatens to make the Internet just like everything else in American society: unequal in a way that deeply threatens our long-term prosperity.” A neutral Internet is hard to get behind; an unequal Internet is easy to be against. I mean, it’s working for Thomas Piketty’s book sales.
Photo by Michael Chen