Who owns the internet?
This week, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on the future of net neutrality. Whether you’ve been following the political back and forth, skimming the headlines, or struggling to decode acronyms, the decision will have an impact on what we can do online (and who can afford to do it). Because the internet has effectively been free and open since the day it was born, it’s easy to lose sight of the impact this vote will have.
The reality is, the internet is a fragile thing. Open, crazy, weird spaces where people swap stories and secrets, create rad digital art projects, type furiously and freely with people seven time zones away — these spaces are rare. People build them, people sustain them, and now, people are trying to restrict them. If this week’s vote passes — which is looking increasingly likely — the internet’s gatekeepers will have more control over their gates than ever before.
Because we live and breathe the internet, laugh and cry on the internet, connect with people who’ve tangibly changed our lives on the internet, we decided to gather some perspectives on this moment in time. Why it matters, how we got here, and what the future may hold. Here are some of the most insightful essays we’ve found on Medium to help us make sense of the fight to keep the net wild and free.
In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Now, he’s defending it. “I want an internet where consumers decide what succeeds online, and where ISPs focus on providing the best connectivity,” Berners-Lee emphasizes. Content and connectivity are two distinct markets, and they must remain separate. Conflating them risks blocking innovation, free expression, and the kind of creativity that can only thrive online.
What’s happening now is not just about net neutrality, law professor Lawrence Lessig argues, but about the foundations of our democracy. Tracing the history of the concept from its origins in the aughts (one of his students, Tim Wu, coined the term “net neutrality”), Lessig sees the rollback of Obama-era regulations as a symptom of a larger issue: a democracy that doesn’t serve its people.
Through statistical analysis and natural language processing, data scientist Jeff Kao shows that millions of pro-repeal comments submitted to the FCC were faked. Organic public comments, according to Kao’s analysis, overwhelmingly supported preserving existing regulations. The report calls into question the legitimacy of the FCC’s comment process, and the basis of chairman Pai’s intention to roll back regulations.
In part one of a five-part series on net neutrality, computer scientist Tyler Elliot Bettilyon takes us back to FDR’s New Deal. Piecing together the history of “common carrier” laws — those that govern everything from shipping to telephone lines — Bettilyon contextualizes today’s fight for a free and open internet.
Social psychologist E Price interrogates the idea that the internet we’ve grown to love is really as “free and open” as we’d like to think. “Internet activity is already deeply centralized,” Erika writes, and major social media sites are today’s answer to the Big Three TV networks of a few decades ago. The internet is closer to cable than we think, and it’s (probably) about to get even closer.
Why should the internet be a public utility? Economist umair haque debunks the “competition will lower prices” argument against internet regulation, and makes a compelling case for why going online, “just like water, energy, and sanitation,” should be a basic right: “It dramatically elevates our quality of life, best and truest when we all have free and equal access to it.”