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What’s Eating Our World: Net Neutrality & the Dinosaur in the Room


N0-Nonsence about Net Neutrality

For the past several months, and this past week in particular, discussion about “Net Neutrality” (the idea that consumers should [be in] control of what content, services and applications they use on the public internet) has been getting a considerable amount of play on the likes of YouTube, Reddit, and other “New-Media” sites. The debate hinges around the ‘pro’ Service Provider wording which the head of the FCC Tom Wheeler is trying to tack on to the legal definition of Net Neutrality in the United States.

One of the major problems is that government appointees, like Wheeler (who has since back tracked on some of the more contentious points that he’d been championing), can hardly be considered unbiased when it comes to an issue that pits the citizens of the internet against the desires of big business. And keeping the idea of Net Neutrality effectively neutral is of great importance to those of us who make their living by creating online content in one form or another. Yet we don’t tend to hear about what has been going on behind closed doors, until the government and the mouthpieces for big business, have moved the proceedings along to such an extent that the general public is left scrambling to put a stop to their agenda.

Now before going any further I must admit that I am in no way an unbiased commentator on this particular issue and the discussion which will follow can accurately be described as having a pro-neutral-neutrailty rose coloured tint. I am also going to avoid engaging with some of the more complicated aspects of the argument: 1.) because Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu and the good folks over at Wikipedia have already gone to the trouble of teasing apart the meaning behind the legalese being used to contest and obfuscate the issue; and 2.) because I believe that the battle which is currently being fought over “Net Neutrality” is only a small (albeit very powerful exemplar) of a much larger issue, best engaged with by taking a look at the rather large and aged dinosaur who happens to be casting its shadow over the room. And for the purposes of this article, the “dinosaur” we will be setting our sights on is that peculiar entity we call “the government.”


What do you get when you mix a Not so Neutral Net, Billion Dollar Corporations, Speed & a Dinosaur that’s getting a little long in the tooth?

Those of us who are alive today are living in a world which has the means for everyday people to be more “interconnected” with one another than at any other time in our history. Or so we’ve been told again and again until the underlying implications of the statement have lost all meaning. It’s as if there’s a displaced 80’s stoner out there somewhere whose only job is to stand on a soapbox and yell “We’re living in the Global Village man! And we’re like… shrinking the world!” In order to convince us about how transformative the coming “Age of the Internet” is going to be without they themselves knowing just how transformative the coming transformation will be.

Well I for one haven’t noticed Vancouver getting any closer to Toronto, or any headway having been made in bridging the divide between Washington D.C. and Beijing (although geologists say that Tokyo is sliding our way, which I consider this to be a sign of real progress on the planetary scale…), and in the midst of this ‘Global Village’ business, the gears of the good ship governance have long since ground to a halt. Stalled on a glacier that’s icy crest looks deceptively like free enterprise, but whom’s delightful topping is just a frosty facade over an infinitesimally deep layer of anti-democratic rhetoric and corporate self interest. Which is in itself funny, because there is no shortage of disembodied heads on television preaching the need for faster internet connections and the doctrine of “Speed.”

The idea of running after fast internet speeds, at least as far as free cultural karma goes, has been popular for quite some time. We want things that help us to do boring activity A and mind numbing routine process B at a speed verging on the speed light— if not faster. And even though we may not have advanced far enough as a society to have invented a machine which lets us go back in time —we’ve done a damn good job of compressing our perception of it!

And this is a realization that the sculptors of the iceberg upon which our governmental system is stuck, are all too aware. As a culture which is obsessed with speed (by way of the illusion of near instantaneous gratification), tends to produce an inordinate amount apathy, dependency, disinterest and jadedness. The byproduct of which is a truncated attention span for things which take more than an hour to complete which makes the fact that government bodies are best suited to dealing with problems that take a long time to fix somewhat tragic. Because ultimately the government (no matter who’s in power) finds itself staggering from one problem to the next, only to arrive at its destination well after everyone else has pulled up stakes and gone racing after the next ‘big’ thing. And it is at this point that the ideas of old school Marxism, and somewhat newer school McClew’ian’ism, have intersected in quite a novel way.

According to Marx, the greatest desire of everyday workers (and ‘no’ I’m not going to call them the ‘proletariate…’) is to take control of the means of ‘production’ (which in this case is the ‘medium’ known as the internet) and if the medium of communication reflects the type of message being sent. Than as of right now (or at least as far as the government and big business are concerned) the internet, as a ‘medium’ for discussions within the public sphere, is getting slapped down —hard!— by those sending a message which reads: “No you can’t have that!” and “No we don’t want any!”


So is it Time to Put the Dinosaur Down?

Well I guess I’ve come to that rather awkward point in any argument which happens to make reference to Marxism. You know, that weird moment when someone feels obligated to ask whether its time to do away with the dinosaur… To which I would respond: “Dear [insert spiritual entity or not so spiritual entity of the readers choosing], I hope not!”

Forasmuch as thorny political issues can cause tension between the average [insert gender, or non-gender specific euphemism] and the government, I don’t hold with the rather extreme position that can be espoused by some of the more radical parties involved in this debate. Rather, what I’d argue is that it is time for us to start using the issues surrounding the battle over our implied right to ‘Net Neutrality’ to start going after the bugaboos upon which those who own ‘the means’ like to prey.

A Few Things to Consider When Bringing the Dinosaur up to Speed

1.)

We need our government(s) to start viewing the internet as a means to further the idea of direct democracy.

The Governments of the United States and Canada have been a little slow in adjusting to what having a population with the ability to communicate at near instantaneous speeds actually means for the democratic process. Although I give the Obama administration a lot of credit for dipping its toes into the internet’s unforgiving waters with its “We The People Program.” For those of you who don’t know “We The People” is a petitions database, where US citizens can ask the President to make a semi-official comment in response to the question which is being asked, if the petitioners can get x many people to show their support by providing their contact information and a brief summary of their thoughts on the issue.

Even though “We The People” is something of a novel idea, it doesn’t amount to much in the long run as it is little more than a government sponsored popular opinion survey. The governments of Canada and the United Sates keep rather robust records on the whereabouts, electoral regions, marriage status, and income levels of their citizens. It is surprising then, that they haven’t done more to create national opinions databases aimed at giving their citizens the opportunity to give voice to their thinking. Granted that creating a national online opinions database (which would allow people to log in with their Social Security or Green Card Number) would inevitably be favourite target of hackers and other erstwhile identity thieves; the idea still has merit.

2.)

We need government(s) to start treating access to the internet as part of the social contract which obligates them to provide us with certain services in return for our tax dollars

Now I know some people will outright cringe at the idea that the government aught to be in the business of providing internet access. And I am not saying that a country, province, state, or municipality’s government aught to be the ‘only’ internet service provider in a given region (or even the main one), but rather that internet access should be treated as part of the social contract in the same way that your municipal government is responsible for keeping the roads clean, and that the provisional government is responsible for keeping the roads in good order, and that the federal government is responsible for ensuring that the other two levels of government are on board with the whole delineation of road repair responsibility thing. There really aught to be a Minister of Internet Access Affairs in the same way that there is a Minister of Transportation.

3.)

We need government(s) to start seeing the internet as part of the public sphere

Out of the three arguments for Net Neutrality this is perhaps the weakest and most controversial as it stand to reason that the companies which own the servers, wireless transmitters and cable networks that the internet is made up of, believe that they have the right to control and censor the content being streamed through, and stored on, their networks. And as such, ownership of the infrastructure means that they should have some say in how people put it to use. Or in other words, that to some degree, their part of the internet is in fact privately owned property. The problem with the private property argument is that the internet (by definition) is a public place, because without the consumer it wouldn’t be what it is today.

Unfortunately, “because we help make it what it is…,” is not a defensible position to take when it comes to using someone else’s things. And this is where the proponents of not-so-neutral Net-Neutrality are desperately trying to keep the focus of the conversation. By doing so they want us (and our elected representatives) to forget that the primary reason why democratic countries exist is because at some point long ago some people in funny hats got together and started to think big thoughts like: “Maybe there is such a thing as the ‘Common Good…’” and “I don’t know about you chaps, but I want to be able to take a stroll in a public park without having some ponce in a company jumper following me around with a collection box!” and lastly, “Maybe we should start making laws to look after the interests of —these here— citizens because some of —them there— bullies who employ them seem to forget that a company which claims to offer a service… is supposed to be of service!”

Summing Up:

The battle over Net Neutrality, like so many other hot button issues in the news today, has to be approached with caution and no a small amount of scepticism, because there is a lot more going on than what the side with the money (and the infrastructure), would like to keep the public’s attention fixed upon. The other thing which we need to be aware of is that the very institution that is supposed to represent our interests, and to champion the cause of democracy and the process of democratization, is often the least well equipped to deal with the issue because governments and government processes are more likely to be favourably inclined to those who can ‘afford’ to move more slowly. As at its heart Net Neutrality is a battle over the control of a medium in which people are relatively free to act of their own volition in ways, and at speeds, which are truly unprecedented. And in our world today, the speed at which ideas, concepts, and thoughts are traversing the globe, has proven detrimental to a great many dinosaurs.

Interested in learning more?

Head on over to aclu.org , or netneutrality.ca  to discover more about just what being Net Neutral is all about.

See more from Ryan Spencer Here!


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