A Eulogy for Net Neutrality (1983-2017)

Net Neutrality

Both were born as identical twins in 1983. During their childhood days, they were confined to ‘meet and experience’ few people around them. However, soon their parents realized the fact that it is time to allow the ‘new born babies’ to explore the world. Soon enough, they started exploring the world beyond all borders and limits. Billions across the world met and experienced this wonder pair and they in turn, helped those billions of populations to transform and empower. However, on 14th of December 2017, one of them was brutally killed by a gang of five members; though two of them firmly opposed the move. Essentially, this duo that influenced our lives for several decades was Internet and Net Neutrality.

With the recent decision of Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a US agency for regulating Internet and service providers, to repeal the principle of net neutrality demands a discussion on the surprising shift in the long-standing policies of the United States as a guardian of liberalism and free thought. Internet and net neutrality are identical twins; both have existed as two inter-twined concepts since 1983, when Internet was born. Since then, net neutrality has acted as the single-most important factor determining the expansion of the Internet from being a mere military network to a gigantic information highway that enables connectivity to even those in the remotest nooks of the world.

Since there was no discriminatory practices that prevented certain sections of the society from accessing the information available on the Internet, several thousands could access and share information free of cost (something that would have otherwise cost people a sizable amount of their income, thereby making such information inaccessible for many). One of the reasons as to why the concept of net neutrality existed for a long period of time, untouched by the multi-million Internet service providers, was due to the fact that Internet was perceived as an open-space; a public property that must be kept in the public domain all the times.

However, the recent shift in the FCC policies will not only create a change in the way Americans use Internet but also the way in which the policies are created across the world. Thus, the FCC decision to repeal net neutrality and allow Internet service providers to bring in preferential treatment of web-content will also create a ripple effect that my hit the other countries as well. There are several implications of this new development. The first and the foremost being the fact that this will increase the cost of accessing the information. For instance, the service providers may decide on which all content must be allowed and which all websites must be blocked on Internet without any legal consultations or approval from the users. This in turn may create a monopolistic tendency in Internet services.

For example, if a service provider tends to allow access to Google at free of cost and asks its users to pay additional fee for accessing other search engines, this in turn may create a monopoly in the long run. Another issue pertaining to neutrality is that it may have the potential to lead to the marginalization of certain sections of the users on Internet. Those who are able to pay more will be treated fairly better than those who pay less. Now this is problematic when it comes to content with open access. Imagine the hypothetical situation where the service providers grant the users free access to Microsoft Webstore whereas charges the users with a fee for accessing the open-source software sites.

This will give an unfair advantage to the private stakeholders which operate for profits. Essentially, the sudden demise of net neutrality will turn the Internet from a free public space into a monopolized private space, with access only for the elitist sections of the society. What happens when the Internet is not neutral and largely biased is that it will increase the cost of accessing information. Information, being the most valuable commodity of modern times, will then have to be accessed by paying a fee; basically, the price of information. That situation would be a blow for the free information movements like Wiki Foundation, Linux, Free Software Foundation etc.

The idea of Internet since its emergence in 1983 was that it will act as a pathway for millions, breaking the class-ceiling created above several thousands of people by helping them accessing information at free cost. It was also the same network that re-wrote the historical trajectory of the world and the cause that lead to several revolutions and movements like ‘Arab Spring’, ‘Tiananmen protest’, ‘Occupy the Wall street’ etc. Since its advent, it has reduced the distance between communities, who otherwise, were separated by geographical, linguistic, cultural and societal boundaries. Thus, the freedom of Internet is something that shouldn’t be left to die in the due course of time. It must be protected.

The sad demise of net neutrality is prophecy that foretells how the Internet will be monopolized in the coming years. What we ought to defend today is not just the freedom of individuals, but also the freedom of knowledge and the freedom of distribution of information and thus to enable even the common man to access them all at affordable prices. For the coming centuries, the inequality won’t be determined by the color of the skin or the amount of the wealth that one may possess but one’s accessibility to knowledge and information.

-Contributed by Jiss Palelil

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