Pleading Neutrality

PBS ranks the US as the fourth most developed country in the world. While it’s easy to look at news reports like this and eagerly pat the US on the back for its spot in the world, a counter narrative is boiling under the surface. I think a key tool in gauging a country’s so-called “development” is looking at how the utilize the internet as a tool. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the United States is not only falling behind in terms of internet speeds but also we are dangerously close to destroying our concepts of net neutrality.

Sam Gustin writes:

I’ll come right out and say it: The U.S. broadband infrastructure — both in terms of speed and coverage — is pathetic and embarrassing. The latest evidence of this travesty comes from a study by the Communication Workers of America which, using data compiled by speedtest.net andspeedmatters.org, that ranks the U.S. 28th among developed countries, behind more wired (but less economically significant) nations like Sweden and the Netherlands.

It’s a big jump from #4 to #28, and for a country that consistently re-asserts its identity as exceptional this statistic should certainly raise some eyebrows. Here we are, the United States, the world hegemony,  and we lack the infrastructure to remain competitive in terms of internet speeds. In terms of an impact, the eroding internet infrastructure reinforces already deep inequality in this country. Indeed, as Gustin shows, the parts of the country with the best/ fastest internet service are the most densely populated, and more often than not, the most affluent parts of the country. Citizens in rural and poorer areas of the country are still met with glacial internet speeds. How can we retain an informed citizenry if a startling portion of us still don’t even have access to decent internet service? If all the information is now on the internet, shouldn’t all the people be too?

But even more troubling is the erosion of net neutrality. In a report by Ray Lin, a student as UC Berkley, he defines net neutrality as “a network design paradigm that argues for broadband network providers to be completely detached from what information is sent over their networks.” The internet we know now is a neutral one, but that could soon change.

Preserving net neutrality is a cause that has drawn support from both the left (like the ACLU) and the conservative christian right. The Christian Coalition of America (CCA) writes:

“Net Neutrality” is an issue extremely important to America’s grassroots organizations and to those Americans who want to ensure the cable and phone companies controlling access to the Internet will not discriminate based on content.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s absolutely crucial that we leave the internet uncensored and neutral to promote a free flow of ideas. This point was further hammered home to me when I had the chance to interview Bob McChesney last month.  Our interview spanned a lot of topics, including the surveillance state and net neutrality. McChesney is a nationally acclaimed media critic and author. Here’s just a snippet of what he had to say about keeping the net neutral:

Today, the internet is one where, thanks to these companies knowing so much about us, the way to make money is selecting which ads we get, aimed right at us, creating even whole websites. As the creator of Google put it: we’re rapidly approaching a time where no two people see the same website when they go to it. They will know exactly what story we think they want based on what advertising preferences and their previous preferences, but they’ll put us all in little bubbles. But, at the same time what we’re finding now is that there’s been huge debate over the issue of net neutrality, which is the idea that ATT,Verizon and Comcast should not be allowed to censor who goes on their network and who doesn’t, and if they had that right, which they’re probably about to get, then it will be a test of this theory.

That quote certainly gave me pause, and I can only hope others have the same reaction. We are entering a very dangerous time if corporations will soon be able to decide what it is that we see and what it is that we don’t. It goes against our freedoms, it goes against our civil liberties and most importantly is goes against the basis of what our democracy was founded upon. I know I’ll continue to fight to keep the net neutral.

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