Net Neutrality Essential in Maintaining Worldwide Flow of Information, Ideas

Editorial Board

President Obama announced on Monday his support for protecting net neutrality — the principle that all internet traffic, from personal blogs to viral videos to CNN breaking news, should be treated equally by internet service providers. This welcome gesture did little, however, to convey the gravity of what’s at stake. Without net neutrality protections, internet service providers have the power — and the profit motive — to effectively redefine high-speed internet and its idea-sharing power as a privilege reserved for those already in positions of wealth and influence.

Net neutrality is one of very few issues that affects virtually every American personally, yet very few understand it; in the words of comedian John Oliver, it’s boring. In an attempt to remedy that back in June, the former Daily Show correspondent dedicated a 13-minute segment of his show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver to illustrate the concept in simple, humorous terms. He explained: “It’s why the internet is a weirdly level playing field and startups can supplant existing brands. That’s how Facebook supplanted MySpace, which supplanted Friendster, which supplanted actually having any friends.”

Facebook, for its part, is one of a group of large corporations including Google, Amazon and Netflix that are — as Oliver points out with incredulity — actually on the side of everyday netizens in the net neutrality debate. They, like smaller websites, will have to pay ISPs, what Obama has termed “tolls” on the information superhighway, in order to match their online competitors for download speeds. In a fast-paced and everintensifying online market, discrepancies will likely mean not merely inconvenience for consumers but unviability for outpaced websites.

Yet while ISPs are the clear winners in a net neutrality-free environment, none of these high-profile websites is the real loser. While Google’s and Amazon’s profit margins may suffer, their content and services will emerge largely unscathed. The same cannot be said for that of websites not backed by multi-billion dollar corporations. Without a doubt, those with the most to lose are web-reliant small businesses and non-profits as well as crowdfunded sites. They’re the owners and beneficiaries of sites like Wikipedia, like Black Girl Dangerous, like The Oberlin Review.

Without painting corporate websites with overly broad strokes, there’s a common thread among the losers: Many of the websites that would be most hurt by a laissez-faire internet are those that connect and amplify non-dominant voices. For instance, Wikipedia, the sixth mostused website in the world, serves its informational role entirely through donations, and through programs like Wikipedia Zero — a partnership with cellphone carriers across 34 countries to provide free mobile access to the site to an estimated 400 million people — it regularly demonstrates its commitment to connecting internationally marginalized voices. Its parent organization, the Wikimedia Foundation, has publicly defended net neutrality as a social justice issue, stating that “it is absolutely in the interests of the public to use the internet to provide free access to education, knowledge, medical information or other public services.”

Beyond the sharing of information, net neutrality is essential to the equitable sharing of ideas, especially by those whose perspectives the mainstream media tends to overlook. Black Girl Dangerous, for instance, amplifies the voices of queer and trans people of color in a specialized online setting curated by those same communities; other blogs of its ilk provide similar crowdfunded safe spaces for voices historically excluded from the world of traditional, corporate-backed journalism.

Journalism, furthermore, will be affected by changes to the Federal Communications Commission rules. The nature of these effects may be interpreted widely. In an editorial in The Daily Dot (“Net Neutrality is good for the internet, bad for internet journalism,” Sept. 10, 2014), Editor-in-Chief Nicholas White suggests that while net neutrality is beneficial to the internet at large, it’s detrimental to online journalism, namely because the internet in its present, neutral state lacks barriers to entry comparable to those of print journalism (the cost of a printing press) and of broadcast media (the cost of FCC licenses).

The Editorial Board, however, believes this accessibility is precisely what makes the internet unique. The possibilities that the internet age has opened to journalism outlets, both new and old, are by now well-documented. The challenges the internet poses to existing media establishments — such as increased competition and decreased print circulation — are necessary challenges to which these establishments must swiftly adapt. The openness of the internet is a necessary avenue for the free speech of all parties, regardless of their economic resources. Ironically, the staunchest critics of net neutrality, such as prominent Republican Senator Ted Cruz, include some of the most ardent supporters of extending First Amendment rights.

An end to net neutrality would ultimately contribute to the ongoing disenfranchisement of those who need the internet most. It would give ISPs, not consumers, control over which voices the internet amplifies and which it doesn’t. In the context of journalism, this isn’t the merit-based selectivity of which White speaks — it’s a slow transformation of the internet from a tool of empowerment to a tool of oppression.