Just prior to the FCC’s vote last month, we ran a post on net neutrality. As a San Francisco digital marketing agency, the topic of net neutrality is extremely important to us. Like a lot of businesses in Silicon Valley, we depend on internet infrastructure for our livelihoods. If service providers start selectively controlling internet access, all bets are off. Remember that a very few major ISPs have a complete monopoly over the physical infrastructure of the internet right now. With virtually zero consumer choice, any interference on their part would be nothing more than a glorified shake-down.
For an ISP, anything short of complete and total noninterference is tantamount to extortion.
This point has been made by, of all companies, Burger King, in a tongue-in-cheek ad meant to spread awareness about the practical risks that could result from a loss of net neutrality.
However, the vote went as expected with the Republican majority (3 votes out of 5) voting to undo the previous (2015) vote, effectively eliminating the consumer protections and regulatory safeguards which have ensured a free and open internet.
Now that the dust has settled, and we’ve got a better idea of how the coming years or months can be expected to play out, we wanted to revisit the net neutrality issue and check in on the state of some of the new developments.
I’d like to preface this with the assurance that, so far, it’s speculation. We don’t mean any of this as a direct accusation.
The day after the FCC vote, I saw something very interesting. I was on YouTube, and clicked a link in a description to the Facebook profile of the presenter. I got an error message.
It masquerades as pretty standard boilerplate, but in context it’s highly provocative. Aside from the fact that I’ve never seen this error message before, it’s telling that the warning piqued to Facebook in particular. Google (YouTube’s parent company) and Facebook have been squaring off more directly over the past couple of years. Each would like to become the primary hub for news, social interaction, commerce, video streaming, content delivery, and so on.
The two sites have been developing competing services for years, some more overt than others (Facebook’s internal video service, for example), but this is something new.
First, so far, while Facebook has been taking potshots at Google for years, Google has never really retaliated. This is the first I’ve seen of Google on the offensive.
In fairness, there are other explanations (an overzealous bot for instance) but it does give us a glimpse of the sort of conduct we might be in for if net neutrality isn’t reinstated (more on that later).
“They’re in an Eating Race”
Net Neutrality, as an approach, prevents ISPs from exerting control over the relationship between the providers and consumers of online content or services. In our last post, we used roadways as an analogy. Roads can’t tell you what kind of car to drive, or which stores you can visit. If you take that impartiality away, in effect, you commodify the consumer base. Just like in broadcast television, you make the consumers a thing to be acquired. The Google/Facebook feud is, paradoxically, a small example of this. The bigger the service, the less incentive that service will have to align itself with any one ISP, and the less likely any ISP will be to curtail it. It’s the mid-size businesses, with less to lose and more to gain, which will be most likely to take advantage of the new playing field.
If ‘net partiality’ is here to stay, we can expect mid-size businesses to start hungry-hungry-hippoing as much market share as they can, as quickly as possible.
We’re in a state of relative equilibrium right now, where no one wants to make the first move, but if we overbalance, we can expect an abrupt and jarring cascade in the days and weeks thereafter.
If That Happens, Who’s Most at Risk?
Net partiality would most affect marginalized groups, especially the impoverished, or racial and social minorities. That isn’t deliberate, but rather an unavoidable consequence of the new paradigm and parameters.
Let’s explore a world where ISPs do start behaving like broadcast television stations (as they will be allowed to do, under their new Title I status).
ISPs have a financial incentive to restrict “premium” content behind a paywall, in the same way that broadcast networks require their customers to pay extra for particular channels and bundles. Pretend that your ISP has become Comcast, and you’ll get the picture.
Now, since marginalized groups will tend to live in less affluent neighborhoods, and will tend to be less affluent themselves, owing to a variety of factors (everything from a lack of opportunity and subsurface social prejudices to prejudiced housing legislation and overt discrimination) they will be doubly susceptible. They won’t have the disposable income to pay for full access to web services, so they could be stuck with substandard web access. Additionally, given the prohibitive cost of expansion for a new provider, any new ISPs (competitors to the behemoths with the monopolies) will not have reason to reach infrastructure to their communities. Basically, it won’t be cost-effective to lay new optical lines into a neighborhood that can’t or won’t be inclined to pay for their services.
What Do We Stand to Lose?
The impartiality of the Web has been more than just an equalizer. It’s been a very real, very dearly needed tool for social change. Remember the Arab Spring, in 2010? The wave of protests, demonstrations, and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, especially in Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt, which led to the overthrow of several tyrannical regimes? Those uprisings toppled five governments, and led to major demonstrations for progress in no fewer than fourteen other countries.
What isn’t often talked about is the fact that those uprisings were built over Twitter, Reddit, 4chan, Facebook, and other web platforms. It was impractical and unsafe to plan protests in person, so hashtags and groupchats were used to coordinate the resistance movements. Twitter, in particular, was absolutely instrumental to the uprisings.
Oppressive regimes are well aware of the subversive potential of these web services. Turkey is notorious for blocking access to certain sites, and the Egyptian government tried (with limited success) to block web access. Today, China polices the internet access of its citizens (largely ineffectually) and is so open about the practice that it’s garnered a tongue-in-cheek nickname: the Great Firewall of China.
The United States, formerly a bastion of freedom, is on the brink of carving up and selling off that freedom, at least when it comes to the internet.
What’s Our Recourse? Who’s Fighting This?
In practical terms, despite the FCC vote, this hasn’t “gone through” so to speak. There have been a number of appeals filed, by attorneys general and senators of twenty-one states (New York, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.)
Further, at the state level, there are ways to directly enforce net neutrality no matter the federal situation. For example, California State Senator Weiner (Dem.) posted about his plans to ensure ongoing net neutrality by leveraging control over the public right-of-way (state-owned property which currently houses and sustains internet infrastructure). In effect, franchise agreements would only be granted to ISPs who abide net neutrality (a by-word for impartiality in traffic processing) with state-level penalties (i.e. refusal of access) to those that don’t play nice. Artfully, this doesn’t contravene the federal ruling, whether it’s appealed or not.
What’s a San Francisco Digital Marketing Agency to Do about Net Neutrality?
As a digital marketing agency, and a B Corporation our job is two-fold. It’s our job to ensure that our clients’ online visibility or reach isn’t impeded, but it’s also our job to spread awareness and advocate for an impartial internet. A level playing field, one which doesn’t hold content hostage or selectively leverage control of the underlying infrastructure for extortionate profit, is the only acceptable paradigm for an internet that has already become an indispensable part of our social and cultural fabric, and which will only continue to become more multifaceted and more integral.
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