The Net Was Never Neutral

Are you a fan of net neutrality? I’m going to guess that most readers of this column are. Net neutrality, the idea that service providers shouldn’t be able to make any restriction on bandwidth based on content, means your ISP can’t slow you down just because you watch a ton of movies or download thousands of songs. It means you can connect your new device without worrying about whether you’ve exceeded your cap on wireless devices. It means that people looking at your site will receive it at the same speed whether you’re a giant media company like MediaPost or just a little old blogger like me. As Jon Stewart put it, “So what’s the debate? That actually seems pretty fair.”

Pretty much the only people who are against net neutrality are the service providers themselves, mainly because they miss out on a potential income stream that would be worth… well, lots. But who misses out if net neutrality is threatened? The little guy. The one not backed by the big money. As net neutrality site SaveTheInternet.com puts it: “That's how bloggers can compete with CNN or USA Today for readers. That's how up-and-coming musicians can build underground audiences before they get their first top-40 single. That's why when you use a search engine, you see a list of the sites that are the closest match to your request -- not those that paid the most to reach you.”

But you the fact is, you do see the sites that paid the most to reach you. A Google search for “diamond rings” (no, this is not a subtle hint; my husband doesn’t even read my column) gives me three ads above the fold and four in the right sidebar, but only one organic result. And you know all that A/B testing Google does? The whole point is to make us more inclined to click on a paid link, without even realizing how much we’re being nudged to do so. The positioning. The shade of yellow. The bolded text and the seller reviews -- honey, look at the shining stars! They sparkle just like diamonds!

The fact is, an up-and-coming musician can build an underground audience -- but the economic structure of the industry is just as much of a hit-driven, top-heavy, scramble for success slog as it ever was. 72 hours of video are now uploaded to YouTube every single minute. Some percentage of those feature up-and-coming musicians. Do you think the odds of “making it” are better or worse than when a few kingmakers had all the power?

The fact is, a blogger can compete with CNN or USA Today -- but he/she is also competing with a hundred million other bloggers, and has no giant brand or million-dollar multimedia budget to get the word out.

And the fact is, while the little people like us are mobilizing in protest against things like PIPA and SOPA, the big guys like Comcast and AT&T are doubling down on their D.C. lobbying -- and digital upstarts like Netflix are joining them.

Net neutrality, the way SaveTheInternet describes it, does not keep us neutral, because we never were. It simply keeps us from giving in altogether. It protects the last shred of hope that, no matter how slim the odds, someone other than the Chosen One will have a chance.

That’s all it is. But it’s enough -- and definitely worth fighting for.

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3 comments about "The Net Was Never Neutral".
  1. Robert Repas from Machine Design Magazine , June 15, 2012 at 10:50 a.m.
    Kaila, you make the same fundamental flaw many do about net neutrality. Notably, "your ISP can’t slow you down just because you watch a ton of movies or download thousands of songs. It means you can connect your new device without worrying about whether you’ve exceeded your cap on wireless devices." Net neutrality never meant "no limits." What it did mean is that any limits set by a supplier would be applied to EVERYONE. There is nothing in net neutrality that prevents ISPs from applying limits to the amount of service they provide overall, nor does it set what they can charge for that service. If they want to enforce a 5 GB cap, they can. But they can't enforce a 5 GB cap on some sites, while permitting others unlimited access. Comcast has already violated that principle when they claimed their own content would NOT count towards their data caps, a clear preference towards their own service over all other sites. (Their claim that it travels over their "private network" rather than the "public Internet" is ludicrous. Do you think they built two distinct and separate sets of hardware in their data centers all the way to the consumer's house?) Net neutrality means all sites are given equal access, and that no site is denied access in favor of another for any reason. If ISPs want to apply caps or charge for usage, that's fine...provided they do it for ALL.
  2. Kaila Colbin from Ministry of Awesome , June 15, 2012 at 11:17 a.m.
    Hi Robert! Thanks for your comment. You're right, I should have been clearer, e.g. "Your ISP can't elect to put the brakes on your free movie downloads while giving you unfettered access to their premium film channel..."
  3. Doug Garnett from Atomic Direct , June 15, 2012 at 6:15 p.m.
    My vote is that the title of this note is absolutely accurate. This is an economic fight by two sides who see massive economic gain for winning their side. However, in the process, the Net Neutrality teams created a perception of "freedom" about what they want. But let's not be mis-led: the corporate supporters of net neutrality are supporting it to enrich their bottom line - not to do something good for humanity. And, in fact, it's not clear that net neutrality IS best for humanity. That's a far more complicated argument.