The death of prudent speech

Net neutrality ruling yields unsubstantiated arguments on free speech

On January 28, 2014

With the expected vitriol and cries that an Orwellian order is upon us, a federal court struck down net neutrality. The Internet now enters a brave new world where the company on the other end of your Ethernet cord has final say over what will appear across your screen.

Following the ruling, valuable information, balanced debates and differing viewpoints were immediately choked from the Internet, lost in a wash of arguments that were sensational at best, laughable in their misplaced fury on average.

The case creates an interesting situation for users of the Internet (read: all of us) and those that provide the content we freely gorge ourselves on. Power relations are doubtlessly restructured with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) left to decide what happens. The ruling struck down the FCC's ability to enforce its former "open Internet" policy that disallowed ISPs from limiting access or speeds to certain sites while bolstering others.

This is troublesome given the potential power ISPs now have to control or limit our access to what is otherwise free speech available online. This simply sets the conditions of possibility; it does not guarantee them. Claiming we will now enter a far restricted Internet is simply born of a misunderstanding of the facts.

ISPs have an interest in maintaining open access, as any changes they make must, legally, be disclosed to customers as must any limitations imposed. This opens them to harsh criticisms and competition from other, more open, Internet providers should they take this route.

But this is the market at work, and likely the market will work with all the efficiency Verizon, Comcast and their ilk are known for as the Internet's content is regulated and parsed into a series of charges, plans, fees and contracts. Potentially, contracts will be made and packages sold by ISPs to customers in a way similar to how television is offered, with the fast access to "premium," or popular, content costing a marginal amount more.

We may even need to pay more for Netflix streaming. But this, too, is relatively unlikely given Netflix opining that it would "vigorously protest" the "draconian law" should an ISP indeed limit access, according to a statement the company released. The ISPs will surely not harm the golden calves (Netflix and similar content-heavy sites) as they are what push users to purchase higher bandwidth plans in the first place. The right to freely watch the entire Orange is the New Black second season in a single weekend appears to be safe from Big Brother ... for now.

Yes, Netflix will defend us. Or, worst-case scenario, innumerable ornery Reddit users will rise up against the injustice of slower download speeds and a surcharge on their video streaming bills.

A real concern is that smaller content providers could face an inability to gain market share by either being unfairly targeted or crowded out by larger content providers that have beneficial contracts with the ISPs speeding up their services.

The former is unlikely, given the laborious, not to mention publically unpopular, process involved in finding and targeting any new start-up. The latter, however, could very well occur, though the age of crowding out smaller, more innovative and at times controversial voices has been upon us for some time now.

The ruling is important, but far from the end of individual expression and access to information as we know it, even net neutrality is likely going to make it out of this unscathed (though endlessly embedded into our lexicon). The case was on a relatively minor aspect of the FCC's classification of Internet provision. They will likely either successfully appeal or redraft the regulation to both preserve our open Internet and meet the requirements of the ruling.

This is not to lessen the importance of the Internet and equitable access to its myriad content suppliers, but consider this: What we need is honest, cogent arguments that assess the real issues at play, such as how we are again seeing the further encroachment of the market and monopolistic corporations into our lives for a profit.

Perhaps we should take the time to thoughtfully engage with the reality of the ruling and the implications it could actually have, instead of decrying some grave injustice that exists only so long as our ignorance persists.

If only there were some way to inform ourselves on this issue, some way to gain from the insights of others, while critically assessing the inaccuracies of others and a forum to display the fruits of our intellectual labors.



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