Do you think the internet is amazing? Have you stood back in awe, marvelling at the democratizing potential (and sometimes reality) of an open and free internet? Do you believe that the people who should have the power over the internet are its users, you and I, as opposed to monolithic entities such the internet service provider you last found yourself screaming at on the phone? If you said yes to even one of these questions, you likely care about the US Federal Communications Commision’s (FCC) move to change how the internet works as we know it. I’m writing this post for readers who don’t have the time or patience to keep up to date with the latest news.
Who is the FCC and what do they do? You can check out what they do on their website. Basically, they regulate all stateside communications technologies, and are mostly appointed by the President. They have a powerful role to play in what and how media is created and consumed in the United States.
What are they proposing as the new set of rules? The most commonly used analogy compares the new set of rules to a highway without tolls (currently) and a highway with fast toll lanes and slow free lanes (proposed changes).
Huh? What do you mean? This means that your ISP (In Canada we have Bell, Rogers, and a few others, in the US they have Comcast, AT&T and others) will be able to charge websites for faster internet. If you can’t pay, get in the slow lane.
How could this be happening? One word: money.
I don’t live in the USA, so why should I care? Because the USA is still the most powerful and influential country on the planet, because we live in a globalized world, and because no country exists in a vacuum. This decision may set a precedent.
Who would these new rules would benefit? Large companies who could pay ISPs for ‘faster lanes’ on the internet. Don’t worry, Netflix, YouTube, and Facebook will probably pay because they have more money than many countries in the world.
What could the FCC do instead? They could make a rule which would make ISPs ‘Common Carriers’. Our telephone providers, for instance, are regulated as common carriers. This means that they get to profit off providing the service, not by charging more to people and companies that can afford faster, clearer, or better phone lines.
How will this effect schools? Well, first of all, I’m guessing your school internet isn’t something to write home about as it is. The type of bandwidth we need to do video conferencing, streaming, and even basic web browsing would take a serious hit. Many also argue that, since it would be large corporations who could pay ‘the toll’, we would be forced to gravitate to web tools provided by corporations over smaller companies. Check out Mike Caulfield’s great breakdown of some of the problems that might arise for higher education.
What can I do? Like all the other problems in our world, I’m powerless, right? Absolutely not. Actually, compared to something much more complex such as Climate Change or Global Poverty, we can stop this easily. These rules cannot be put into place without public support; or, rather, public apathy. Yell about it! Here’s how.
The internet is supposed to be different than something like, say, traditional television. You and I are supposed to be able to start a website from our homes or the local Starbucks as easily as a giant like Time Warner or Comcast. If you’re ok with a two-tiered internet, keep calm and carry on. On the other hand, if you are able to contemplate the problems in this arrangement for democracy, and if you believe that being rich shouldn’t mean you have a literally faster and better internet than common folk, speak out now and speak out often.