How the net neutrality debate exposes the consequences of a profit-driven Internet.
Internet users and activists are launching the final phase of a summer campaign to protect “net neutrality” in the Trump era. Under the Obama administration, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to classify Internet service providers (ISPs) as “common carriers” that, like telephone lines, are required to distribute service equally. If the FCC reverses this classification, as it intends to, the big telecom and cable companies that connect you to the Internet could block, slow or prioritize access to Web content based on who is willing to pay. They could even censor political content. This favors powerful companies with deep pockets, and threatens to squash both innovation and the democratic spirit of the Internet.
The net neutrality issue has reignited a debate that is as old as the Internet. Once limited to tech-savvy users with access to networked computers at academic institutions, laboratories and government agencies, the Internet has become a fundamental part of nearly everybody’s life.
Billions of new users have come online over the past two decades. But the commercial interests that have enabled their entry have also threatened the core values of openness, freedom of expression and access that were so critical to the Internet’s early pioneers. During the 1990s, public policies dramatically transformed the Internet by encouraging its privatization. As is true today, these changes sparked activism as individuals grappled with the tension between the technology’s commercial potential and its democratic ideals.