The future of the internet as we know it (no really) is being sculpted right now in a series of closed-door talks between Google and Verizon. What’s at stake: Net Neutrality. If that term sounds weighty, that’s because it is (and you need to know about it).
You might not think about it often, but there are a lot of things we take for granted about the way the internet works. We go online, we search for things and find them, simple as that right? Anyone can make a website, anyone can go to that website and no one is restricting that experience, save for your employer or girlfriend, depending on what you’re searching for. But that all might be about to change. So get ready to do the virtual equivalent of sitting on your front porch with a sawed-off shotgun, armed for what the post-apocalypse might yield– zombies, usually, but in this case something far more sinister.
Net Neutrality refers to the state of the internet right now, as we know it. As it stands, we reluctantly hand over our money to internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Time Warner; in turn, we are granted an all-access pass to the web. (The FCC wants to preserve this system. You probably do too.)
Controlling for other factors (like flash heaviness, etc) sites like YouTube load at the same speed as sites like Autostraddle. While we may slog through internet content with our ISP’s cheaper dial-up connection (I guess these still exist?), or zip through it with broadband, all of our sites are funneled through the same proverbial “tube.”
With our current model of the web, no company interacts with an ISP to get its content out in a meaningfully different way. All sites are in the same boat– even your old Geocities homepage, with its array of delightful animated gifs.
It’s hard to think of the internet as being not like this, right? What would it look like otherwise? Well, it’s kind of hard to imagine, sort of like it’s hard to imagine your own hometown as a bombed-out wasteland ruled by post-punk freegan Vespa gangs and crawling with assorted other mildly-radioactive ironic nomads. But let’s try. The former, not the latter.
If net neutrality were dissolved, ISPs could charge companies a premium to speed up the delivery of their content. That means CNN, owned by Time Warner (which also owns half the world) could pay to make sure the online correlates of their vast media properties (like New Line Cinema, Time Inc., HBO, Turner Broadcasting System, The CW Television Network, TheWB.com, Warner Bros, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, CNN, DC Comics, Warner Bros. Games, Castle Rock Entertainment, New Line Television…the list goes on) would be delivered to web-trawlers at premium speed.
“In a move that could change the landscape of the Internet, Google and Verizon are reportedly close to a deal that would allow Internet service providers to prioritize traffic from certain websites.
Citing unnamed sources, The New York Times first reported the news on Wednesday. The negotiations between the two companies are continuing and neither of them has announced any agreement.
Verizon issued a statement Thursday, saying the the Times article was “mistaken” and “fundamentally misunderstands our purpose” in talking to Google.
“… our goal is an Internet policy framework that ensures openness and accountability, and incorporates specific FCC authority … .To suggest this is a business arrangement between our companies is entirely incorrect.”
Google also denied making a deal. A company statement said that it has not talked to Verizon about “paying for carriage of Google or YouTube traffic” and that the company remains “committed” to “an open Internet.”[@NPR]
This would create what many are calling a “two-tiered” internet, where companies could pay extra to ISPs for a kind of preferential treatment that startups (ahem) and smaller companies couldn’t possibly afford. Naturally, if this difference in speed proved to be significant, it would funnel yet more hits toward mega media congolomosites, like those in the list above owned by Time Warner. (Time Warner also owns your dog and 1/3 of your grandmother.)
But what’s less clear is if the hypothetical top tier of content would be “sped up” at the expense of the lower tier. If most pages load instantaneously, could ISPs create an artificial ceiling on the non-premium content? (That’d sure as hell be a good way to highlight their top-tier service, and it’s hard to tell if this could happen or if we’d even know if it did.)
Naturally, this is a big, big deal. And it’s hard to say how this would go down or what kind of chain-reaction it could set off. While the internet as we know it now can level every possible playing field–take the advent of bloggers and YouTube phenoms scoring major label record deals, for example– this new system could choke out the kind of self-made weirdness that unleashed lolcats on the (so, so thankful) masses, tipping the scales toward huge, established, certainly less weird online outlets. Fuck that noise.
If we think SEO is a flawed system (it is; if this story’s headline began with the word “boob,” it’d soak up search engine hits like a sponge), imagine the kind of horrors the death of net neutrality could unleash against the current state of relative web democracy.
The internet of today fosters an endlessly varied counterculture that arms the little guy and crystallizes the “rags to riches” American dream trope into reality, tweet by tweet. Every day a new meme gives an angel its wings (or a book deal), and our culture is electrified with a rekindled, Great Gatsbian sense that anyone’s ideas can hit it big. If they’re good or strange enough.
The more we dream the grander our online pursuits become. It’s hard to think that the death of net neutrality wouldn’t shrink our collective dreams of success and weirdness just to line some already well-lined pockets. And of course, as much of our online existence rests (now precariously) in Google’s palm, it’s rather shocking that they have a hand in these talks at all. But since they were hush-hush, we can only speculate. Not to mention the company’s unofficial motto: “Don’t be evil.”
Any move on Google’s part to strike a deal counter to net neutrality would certainly be a PR clusterfuck, inherent evil aside. So let’s hope for the best and steel ourselves for the worst. An internet ice age may be on the horizon.