Friday, November 7, 2008

Net Neutrality

I’ll be completely honest – I had been procrastinating this blog entry because I didn’t quite understand it for the longest time. I’m happy to say I think I’ve got it now, but I think it’s the concept of it that was most difficult for me to understand, likely because as an almost life-long user of the internet, it’s never occurred to be that the “Free Culture” (pun) floating about on the World Wide Web (pun again?) could be controlled and limited.

The organization “Save the Internet” defines Net Neutrality as “[It] means no discrimination. Net Neutrality prevents Internet providers from blocking, speeding up or slowing down Web content based on its source, ownership or destination.” [1] The reason why this concept is even being debated is because there are large corporations that want to control the content we absorb. In “Save the Internet’s” words, they “want to be Internet gatekeepers, deciding which Web sites go fast or slow and which won't load at all.” [1] It almost seems like a sci-fi movies, or a cyber-thriller (dare I refer to “Eagle Eye” for the second time this semester?) where “the Man”, who shall remain nameless, has the power to control what we see, hear, learn and ultimately know. If we have no net neutrality, neutral and fair access to the sites we desire to view, we are no longer a free culture.

There is no other medium that in and of itself contains all the opportunities that the internet does. The internet can be considered the most participatory or the most dumbening medium that ever existed – we can fully immerse ourselves in the information it carries and create and expand on so many cultural phenomena. On the other hand, we can become blind consumers of the preexistent content of the internet and use it merely as a “read-only” tool. The two groups of people referred to here are the “media literate” and the “media illiterate”; those who can sift through the, in Ursula Franklin’s words, “giant dump”[2] that is the World Wide Web and decipher the propaganda from the neutral information. For the media illiterates, the loss of net neutrality or the privatization of the internet will likely not even be noticed (save for those who possibly examine their monthly internet bills in great detail – but either way the details will be well disguised by the corporations). However, for the media literate, it will be the loss of freedom and democracy. It will be dampening of imaginations. It will be the extermination of cultures.

Lawrence Lessig wrote in his aptly titled “Free Culture” that “the internet enables the efficient spread of content. That efficiency is a feature of the Internet’s design. But from the perspective of the content industry, this feature is a “bug”. The efficient spread of content means that content distributors have a harder time controlling the distribution of content. One obvious response to this efficiency is thus to make the internet less efficient.”[3]. By putting the chain-and-lock on the internet, the corporations will not only be robbing us of our free culture but making it near impossible to retrieve the shreds of information that remain. With the privatization of the internet, as mentioned before, “they” will be able to decide which sites load faster or slower or which even load at all. Likely sites that are anti-their agenda will be inaccessible and we’ll be far more accustomed to the site of “This page cannot be displayed”.

The fact that this is such a major issue affecting everyone who uses, even to some degree, the internet and so few people have heard of it or even understand it is a huge problem. Indifference or lack of awareness will only expedite the loss of our free culture. It’s important to get the word out from the bottom up – even starting from a small academic blog such as this. With the loss of net neutrality, who knows how long my blog would’ve taken to load.

[1] "Frequently Asked Questions." Save the Internet: Fighting for Internet Freedom. Free Press Action Fund. 7 Nov 2008
[2] Franklin, Ursula M.. The Real World of Technology. Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc., 1999.
[3] Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture. New York, USA: The Penguin Press, 2004.

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