You may soon have to pay for a premium experience on the Internet. Why the World Wide Web may never be the same again.
Last week, a federal appeals court overturned part of the FCC’s Open Internet rules, which had been used to ensure net neutrality, an ideal meant to guarantee that Internet service providers treat everything online as agnostic data free from artificial manipulation.
Net neutrality was the philosophic shelter behind the idea that the Internet’s ultimate usefulness depends on the people using it, whose efforts shouldn’t be impeded by unnatural roadblocks that make it so that people who, for example, use Verizon access nytimes.com 30 percent faster than aljazeera.com. Without the government’s protection of net neutrality, the Internet will become a fragmentary mess known more for its untrustworthy manipulations than as a warehouse for world’s collective data truth, which we should all have equal access to.
Describing the ruling in The Verge, Nilay Patel lamented the “entire American Internet experience is now at risk of turning into a walled garden of corporate control.” Impassioned claims that the end of net neutrality would mean a new era of corporate coercion are intimidating, but they skip too hastily past the fact that the Internet already is a walled garden of corporate control.
The Internet was able to propagate far and wide not after some disparate academics figured out how to share data between computers but when corporations built proprietary data outposts with that structure, incrementally colonizing everything that had come before into a new mode of transmissibility.
A future without net neutrality will only shift control over what’s most visible from media conglomerates with the means to build SEO-aggregation machines to ISPs, who will be able to broker deals that make it possible to bribe the system instead of having to hustle it.
With net neutrality, companies like Amazon and Vox Media can happily pay to ensure their products are given structural favor over others by spending money on design, search-engine optimization, buying cross-promotion with other sites, and investing lavishly in PR and social media campaigns to boost public awareness. A future without net neutrality will only shift control over what’s most visible from media conglomerates with the means to build SEO-aggregation machines to ISPs, who will be able to broker deals that make it possible to bribe the system instead of having to hustle it.
The Verge’s Macbook Pro reviews won’t be any less visible without net neutrality, nor will The Huffington Post’s anecdotal pamphleteering, nor Gawker’s sardonic hectoring. Whether it’s Google’s witless algorithms that are responsible for filling in all of the banner ads you see with products you just searched for, or an ISP auctioning off slots to those willing to pay, it won’t be the average Internet user who’s put out, but companies grown familiar with current ways of manipulating the Internet for their own profit.
Writing in The Atlantic, Kevin Werbach argues that the lapse of net neutrality is the byproduct of various systemic failures on the local level, which have become rotten with “state prohibitions adopted at the behest of incumbent carriers, difficulties with zoning and access to right of way, and limited willingness to invest in the kinds of municipal open access fiber optic utilities that are wildly successful in cities like Stockholm.”
There will inevitably be smaller interests whose work becomes more difficult to carry out. “A child in a rural area who loses the ability to video conference with her physician specialist, a single dad who can no longer take his online college courses or a community media outlet in the inner city that is charged more to distribute its news—these are real losses,” Tessie Guillermo, President and CEO of the social justice and technology consultancy ZeroDivide, told ABC News.
While these may be the invoked victims of net neutrality’s loss, they were never its main beneficiaries either. Thinking about ways to preserve the modest but indismissable gains made at the margins of the Internet points to a great cultural inability to imagine living without something that most people didn’t seriously use 10 years ago.
The speed and ease with which we have come to depend on digital networks is an affect of a generational pacification, in which performing an identity online makes living a peaceably conformist life offline tolerable. This week’s Economist notes the historic rise in income and consumption inequalities in the United States over roughly the same period of time as the Internet became popular, with comparatively few instances of social upheaval that typically accompany such shifts.
Our online footprints betray no shortage of awareness of these corruptions, but they also confess a massive confusion about how this awareness should be transformed to action. The Internet was an idyllic flytrap for increasing socio-political unease, combining a platform for previously marginal voices to be heard. With the coming dissolution of net neutrality, we have reached a technological milestone whereby a generation of Internet true believers will be challenged to keep their utopian ideals alive without the limitless, and limitlessly artificial, fancies of the machine that brought them into the present.
We’re going to need more than nice Java script and pretty graphic design to survive the future, but it was a beautiful few years thinking a little bit of coding, Photoshop, and Foucault would be enough to incite social change. It’s going to take active bodies and not neutral websites. Now that net neutrality is waning, it’s possible to see how increasingly self-aggrandizing and deceptive the Internet’s most visible actors really were, and how stuck in place those of us who formed their audience
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, NewYorker.com, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.