The magic of the Internet is not lost on us. We are the YouTube generation, cursed with the capabilities of extreme multicrastination.
We surf, we Digg and we blog, all without realizing the ongoing fight for control of the web.
Currently, the Internet is “neutral,” which means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot prioritize one website over another. According to net neutrality, cityonahillpress.com has just as much right to deliver information to its viewers as the website of the New York Times or of Microsoft. The Internet portrays a true definition of free speech to an extent that our parents could only have dreamed of, but this is being threatened.
In 2005, AT&T suggested allowing some companies to pay for preferential treatment to prioritize access to their web content. After heavy protest, however, this notion fizzled.
But the debate continued when Comcast, which owns the majority of the cable lines for high-speed Internet, began interfering with the activities of its users. In October 2007, the Associated Press discovered that Comcast was actively disrupting peer-to-peer file sharing, particularly the wildly popular BitTorrent. Critics maintain that Comcast wants to disrupt the trade between videos on its lines so that it can prioritize its own video service.
If every website must either pay or be forgotten, it will destroy the Internet. Independent sites will be forgotten, controversial organizations will face censorship, and free sites will be a thing of the past. The average Internet users can forget about starting an online business or creating a personal website without opening up their wallets and pulling out their e-dollars.
This is a slippery slope. If Comcast can prioritize its own content over someone else’s, it can cancel blogs, alternative news sources or any content it considers seditious in the slightest. This is a First Amendment issue, and there should be legislation to protect neutrality.
Still, there is ethical ambiguity: Comcast owns the lines, so shouldn’t it be able to control what passes through them? We must remember that history has a tendency to repeat itself.
In its early days, radio was hailed as a new form of communication, a public good that no one could dominate because radio waves were as free as the very air they sailed through. Still, as it became more and more apparent that radio waves were limited and needed regulation, the FCC stepped in to license broadcasters. While this made sense at the time, modern radio stands as a testament to the effects of this regulation.
Today, as the license for a radio station becomes a valuable commodity, often worth millions of dollars, corporations dominate most of the radio band. Clear Channel Communications alone owns over 1200 radio stations.
Radio was hailed as a medium that anyone could use to connect the masses in a cheap, accessible way. When it became a commodity, this evaporated.
When a public service is forced to compete in a capitalist market, something gets lost in translation. For a comparison, look at the difference between cable news and PBS.
The 24-hour news cycle has taken over on CNN. The network sells ads, and comes up with content that’s interesting enough to capture enough attention to fulfill the goal of every corporation in America: making money. The 24-hour news cycle has destroyed journalism, forcing reporters to find something to fill every minute of every day. As a result we find ourselves watching Britney’s latest debacle on news channels more frequently than world issues or current affairs. Meanwhile PBS takes the time to report a deeper story and the end result is satisfyingly clear.
If independent sites are forced to earn the money it takes for their content to be viewable, it will degrade the quality and integrity of their organization. If corporations dominate the Internet, they will be able to censor news and information as they see fit.
The Internet, like the radio, was hailed as a wondrous technological innovation that allows the little guy to have his voice heard.
Let’s keep it that way.