In a New York Times Room for Debate essay, Tim Wu sums it succinctly:
At Thursday’s F.C.C. public meeting, Chairman Tom Wheeler declared, with Lincolnesque firmness, that he would stand second to no one in his defense of net neutrality.
“I will not allow the asset of the open Internet to be compromised,” he said. Citing his experience as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, he said he knew personally what artificial barriers to entry look like. There will be no fast lane, he declared, “I don’t like the idea that the Internet could be divided into haves and have-nots, and I will work to make sure that does not happen.”
Disaster averted, as Wheeler declares the internet to be safe from the machinations of smacking down those will refuse to grease the tubes with green, so that everyone, anyone, can access the web on the same footing. But…
[T]here is a gap between his speeches and the actual rules. The rules say, for example, that “our proposed no-blocking rule would allow broadband providers … to negotiate terms of service individually” with content sites provided that they are commercially reasonable, and don’t harm Internet openness.
So no one, no one says Wheeler, will suffer the consequences of being disfavored. But not all pigs are created equal, either. While no burden will be tolerated, a cash-and-carry benefit is an entirely different matter.
Recall the debate about plea bargaining, where some call it the trial tax while others think of it as an opportunity to benefit from an option that lessens the harshness of the law. Same coin, two sides.
As fun and fascinating as a war of words may be, the fact is that there are going to be winners and
losers not-so-much-winners, based upon ability and willingness to pay. For the companies that maintain the tubes, this new revenue stream is absolutely necessary, as the cash machine of internet access didn’t make them filthy rich enough.
But if you think there’s net Nirvana now, bear in mind that we are already subject to Google’s algorithm, which puts one on either the first page of a search engine or page 12, internet Siberia. Some would argue that this is a meritocracy, where the worthy rise to the front while the unworthy die a brutal and painful death in ignominy. But if that was true, then SEO scammers would have to back to their old jobs at Dairy Queen.
There are two primary differences now that the FCC has stuck its nose in the mess and taken responsibility for making absolutely certain that “no artificial barriers to entry” thwart net neutrality. The first is that it’s all about money, which makes the world go ’round. There is nothing wrong with money, or the desire to make it. We are a capitalist society, and businesses are not merely entitled, but compelled, to make money.
But this isn’t exactly a libertarian ideal. It creates a detriment for those who can’t match the big money of extant industry, so that the position of existing profitable businesses can’t possibly be touched by upstarts. It’s anti-competitive. It deprives the public of choice, of newer businesses, perhaps more innovative ones, who will never be delivered to our doorstep as quickly as those who can pay.
The second difference is our old, and dear, friend, the government doing its best in our name to provide us with a more fabulous world. Usually, this comes because a problem, real or imagined, arises and a choir sings the praises of a governmental solution. Isn’t that why government exists, to create laws, rules, regulations to make our world better, even if only in the eyes of a narrow interest group?
Except the internet didn’t have a problem. Well, it has a million problems, but it also has the ability to work them out internally, with every user voting with his keyboard whether to accept or reject whatever idea is proposed. Even if people can’t be trusted, because they’re wrong, they can’t be easily silenced despite the best efforts of self-appointed monitors of righteousness.
The government, on the other hand, has a lot more juice when it comes to controlling conduct than do the school marms. But net neutrality doesn’t address a problem. There is no valid complaint that the equal availability of access for anyone and everyone, big or small, rich or poor, good or evil, was destroying life as we know it.
It just wasn’t good for business. At least those businesses who had the cash to pay the toll for the fast lane.
We like to think that the Internet is made of video streams and quips and cat photos, and it is. But it is also made of the waves of sorrow of a thousand million acts like the ones mentioned above, all spilling onto shore, erosive. You’ll try to tell me that these are incidental properties, mere exhaust, the necessary but piffling downsides of a force of greater good. But I don’t believe you anymore. The opposite is just as convincingly true: whatever virtue we drink online we squeeze from a bitter and ever-thickening rind of sorrow.
Someone’s feelings were hurt, so we must control the internet so it never happens again. Because waves of sorrow amidst the cat photos.
For us early adopters, who remember when a bad idea on the internet was crushed under the weight of the angry hoards, pitchforks and torches in hand, hurting feelings with abandon, but keeping the place remarkably tidy, the exertion of government control makes us want to cry. This was the digital world, beyond the reach of mere secular government, too broad and powerful to be regulated into submission. At least that’s what we hoped.
Perhaps there are still enough of us who remember the Halcyon days, who will refuse to adhere to the rules of grocery clerks with checklists, who will somehow facilitate those who can’t pay the tare to find their way online quickly enough to make their wealthier predecessors rue the day they agreed to sell their soul to Comcast.
FCC Chair Tom Wheeler can claim he remembers, but he’s full of shit. Whether these rules are called a benefit or a detriment, they alter the equation for cash. If the internet has any juice left in it, it will pry Wheeler’s greedy little fingers off the joy stick and force them into a part of his anatomy where they will do the most good.