By Steve Stajich
Okay, quick show of hands: The Internet is a modern wonder, allowing us to communicate faster, find old friends online, shop at home, post pictures of our dogs wearing Santa hats… and so on. Hands?
Or it’s a speeding train out of control that sometimes makes possible terrorism, stalking, bullying, the hacking of elections, your kids clicking to porn sites, banality such as dogs wearing Santa hats… and so on. Hands?
Most of us would probably land somewhere in the middle on this. Internet connectivity is here to stay as a fact of life and we will just have to endure what it brings and find work-arounds for its potentially negative impacts. But as we increasingly embrace the Internet and take its place in our lives for granted, should there be serious questioning of anything that makes the Internet in any way unfair?
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has historically come under scrutiny in cycles that usually begin with an event of something unpleasant that’s said or done on television or radio: Howard Stern, profanities uttered at awards shows, or most recently a comment made by late night host Steven Colbert about various uses for Trump’s mouth. It is usually these high-profile events that cause Americans to remember that a federal commission supposedly looking out for us in the media ether even exits, protecting us from overreach and smutty language on the airwaves even though almost every form of media now comes to us at the end of a cable.
It’s possible that the anxiety some have about newly appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai repealing net neutrality – a term referring to FCC regulations that currently contribute to making the Internet more fair for all – might not be something you’re worried about. Broadly, net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differently by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment or mode of communication.
No one is talking about shutting down Facebook or taking away your online access. What may be in play with Mr. Pai is the repeal of legal oversight that prevents broadband companies from blocking websites and the slowing of connection speeds and subsequent charging for faster delivery of certain content.
Viewed one way, repealing net neutrality might be compared to what American airline companies do right now: The Internet would get a First Class section and most of the rest of us would have to travel the net like cattle because of what we can afford. Of course there are millions of Americans who can’t even afford plane tickets in the first place, just as there are households without broadband and Wi-Fi because the families in those homes don’t have the resources. Remember when Bill Clinton was concerned that no one should be left off the “Information Superhighway?”
In an L.A. Times business section piece on net neutrality that highlighted comments by HBO “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver, Oliver cited that FCC Chairman Pai has said he wanted to “take a weed whacker” to telecommunications regulations and has vowed tough net neutrality rules’ “days are numbered.”
Of course our President says a lot of tough stuff too, and then he flips three or four times or pretends he never said it. In an “apples and oranges” it might not be fair to point out that Mr. Oliver’s show is available only on HBO, a premium channel for those who can afford it. At the risk of sounding Luddite our household does not subscribe to HBO and never has because, in this writer’s view, it’s not truly democratic that American cable systems carry special TV content that is only for those who can pay for it.
And so should it be with the Internet. Should schools pay more for better connection speeds? I guess if you’re attending Harvard, you’re not expecting to go the library and wait through the “clong clong” sound of dial-up. But it’s the blocking of websites that gave me pause. If you get a map of the world from your government, are you expecting to unfold it and discover that certain countries we have issues with have been left off the map and that those countries that have hotels owned by the President are marked with big red letter T?
The Internet is a world, albeit something more akin to a universe. China initially tried to hamper the reach of Google there and slowly much of that censorship has gone away. I don’t know that I would fight to the death to protect a website like “Hot Moms with Free Time,” but as a writer I am obligated to protect the world of ideas. Even when those ideas include things such as what Hot Moms can do with their free time. Internet neutrality will, over time, be challenged by those who would rather protect corporate income than freedom of access and speech. You can be greedy, but you can’t be Orwellian.