Net Neutrality and the End of Days: Why It Matters

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 CinemaTime Inc.HBOTurner Broadcasting SystemThe CW Television NetworkTheWB.comWarner BrosCartoon NetworkAdult SwimCNNDC ComicsWarner Bros. GamesCastle Rock EntertainmentNew 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.

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Taylor has written 136 articles for us.


  1. Great article. My dad is the president of a telecommunications company and so it’s all FCC talk all the time with him. I slept through it for 30 years until one day he was like, “Blah blah net neutrality blah blah slow down Wikipedia FOREVER.” And then I was all ears.

    I think Jon Stewart said my favorite thing about net neutrality last year when he was blasting McCain’s Internet Freedom Act of 2009: “It’s kind of like creating a carpool lane on the Internet, only instead of high occupancy vehicles, only rich assholes would be able to drive on it.”

    Here are some great net neutrality posters in the manner of WWII propaganda posters:

    Anyway, back to writing for MTV. (Irony not lost on me.)

    • Thanks!

      Those posters are super cool.

      I’d love to have a more thorough understanding of where the FCC stands in all of us. But seeing as how I just barely know what FCC is an acronym for, i might have a ways to go.

      Does your dad have any insights about how this could possibly benefit the average internet-goer? I’m pretty curious if there’s any kind of counter-argument that’s more ideological and less about quarter earnings and whatnot.

  2. The ideological argument is tricky because it works from both sides.

    FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wanted to impose a formal set of rules on ISPs that would prohibit selective blocking or slowing of traffic. Which can only seem like a good thing, right? The Internet is one of the only level playing fields left in terms of profit-making, and it is that fact alone that fosters so much creativity and free information and diversity of opinion. In what other macroeconomic model could *every* person hope to turn their art into an income, you know? So net neutrality is an ominous prospect for every website that isn’t backed by deep pockets. Without it, each ISP will create their own fiefdom. And the lords of the feudal Internet with be the ones who bought their titles.

    The other side of the argument is that the free market is what made the internet glorious in the first place, and allowing a government organization to essentially seize control of it — by creating a firm set rules to regulate businesses — is the equivalent of having state-run media. Not in terms of content, necessarily — though that’s one fear — but in terms of diminishing competition which leads to rising costs and poorer quality.

    One of the biggest problems is no one knows who gets to make the rules. I mean, IS it Google and Verizon? Or is it the FCC? Or is it Congress? Or is it just anarchy up in here?

    I like the idea that it’s the last thing. I’d rather live in Lord of the Flies than 1984 or The Complete Book of Greed.

  3. taylor where were you two years ago when i had to debate this in class? it accidentally ended up on my school’s website and i would be much less embarrassing if you would have tutored me about it.

  4. Taylor this was both incredibly informative and also incredibly frightening. I’m glad you have a smart brain about these sorts of things because if I tried to figure them out on my own, I’d be very confused.

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  6. This scares the crap out of me, and I don’t even depend on this machine for income like y’all.
    Actually what really scares me is that we have traded our control over our lives and destiny long ago to whoever is in charge of these machines and the ether they connect to themselves in. Our dependence is pretty intrenched, so nothing can really stop them now, right?

  7. Net neutrality is already pretty dead here in Australia.

    See, I have a upload/download cap. (Most people only have their downloads capped, but my plan is weird because I’m on Naked ADSL, aka no line rental aka I hate this country sometimes.) If I download and upload more than a certain amount of data, then my Internet connection speed is slowed down to 1999 levels.

    However, there are some sites that my ISP lets me download information from without penalty, even if I download eleventy billion gigabytes. (Okay, that probably goes past a fair use clause in their contract that I’m sure is there.) For my ISP, that includes XBL and some Internet radio stations and iTunes and ABC iView and a few other places that I don’t go to so I don’t care about them so much. So, therefore, they privilege that traffic over my traffic from YouTube or Autostraddle or LiveJournal or P2P filesharing (NOT LIKE I’D DO THAT ANYWAY).

    I hate the way the Internet works here, and I’m not sure it’s exactly the same thing as the worries here, but there it is.

    • Dina, very interesting. Famous Aussie Rupert Murdoch (Fox Corporation) promised less than a year ago that the internet as we know it would cease to exist. Maybe this is what he meant?

      He said he would find a way to extract premium subscriptions to content of his news and entertainment sites.

    • Wait, really? I thought our Internet was just really slow. Damn. That explains why it takes 5 minutes for a 2 minute YouTube vid to load…

      • My home Internet is actually relatively fast (compared to other Australians, not compared to the US), but we live right next to the exchange and in the Sydney metro area and stuff. I’ve got a friend who lives in Tamworth, and all she has to work with is dial up… >_<

  8. ack, the fake “free market” example so often cited by the behemoth corporations that crush any semblance of one.

  9. Anyone finding this ironic giving Verizon’s “Rule the Air” ad campaign?

    “Air is something you breathe, it doesn’t discriminate,…” etc etc.

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