comments_image Comments

Net Neutrality Fight Isn’t About Saving Internet Freedom, It’s About Saving Internet Commerce

Since when is the freedom to sell more stuff online a pro-consumer cause?

John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, talking about net neutrality.
Photo Credit:


Net neutrality, as comedian John Oliver said on his HBO show, may be the worst-named cause ever. Besides being “completely boring,” it refers to “all data being treated equally no matter who creates it and why the Internet is a weirdly level playing field.”

Like many Internet activists, Oliver has been urging all conscientious citizens to tell the Federal Communications Commission to leave the net alone. Go file online comments before Friday's deadline, he urges, and don’t allow cable companies to charge content creators different prices for sending data at different speeds, which might disadvantage a NetFlix or Facebook or Google.

“What’s being proposed is so egregious that activists and corporations are being forced onto the same side,” Oliver said. “That’s basically Lex Luther knocking on Superman’s apartment door and saying, listen, I know we have our differences, but...."

This is entertaining, but very misleading. It is a myth that Internet service is now free and open and equal and somehow utopian. It’s not—just look at the varied packages sold to consumers. Look at what you have at home. If you don’t like your DSL, you can pay more for cable or a fiber optic plan. There’s nothing equalitarian or utopian there.

Let’s take another step back and ask, is net neutrality even a consumer movement? The closer you look, the more the answer is no. It’s a giant fight between giant corporations. Consumers—the public—are pawns in this fight. This is a business-to-business war, between different tech sectors, each of whom sits behind a cash register and profits mightily from all things that are delivered online.

Consider this tidbit from a press release from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which arrived on Wednesday morning via e-mail. Ask yourself who is the beneficiary here? Is it ordinary people whose service is already metered and fragmented by data speed and data volume, or is the tech community that wants to support startups and its successes?

“An open, neutral, and fast Internet has sparked an explosion of innovation in everything from shopping to the way we exchange ideas and debate potential political change,” said EFF intellectual property director Corynne McSherry. “But its founding principles are now under threat.  It’s time for users to take action to protect our Internet.”

The rhetoric here is 1984—as in George Orwell’s dystopian novel—or if you want a more modern read, Dave Eggers'  The Circle. What freedom is being talked about here? Whose freedom? Freedom to do what? Here’s how EFF describes the threat:

“The FCC has long promised to take steps to protect the open Internet, but earlier this year the agency announced a net neutrality proposal that would allow for so-called ‘Internet fast lanes.’ The plan claims to promote a neutral Internet, but embraces a ‘commercially reasonable’ standard for network management, allowing ISPs to make special deals that would give some services privileged access to subscribers.”

They are not talking about consumers who are reading this column on the receiving end of a digital device. Right now, consumers, including me in my home office, don’t have a neutral Internet. Nobody is censoring political information. But when it comes to the audio, video and other high bandwidth uses, we get what we pay for. We live and work within the realities of fluctuating and overly hyped broadband speeds. Who hasn’t seen faster and slower days online?

John Oliver, in his "Jump on the net neutrality bandwagon” feature from his HBO show in June, tries to make net neutrality sound like it’s a consumer movement. But the examples he uses, warning of the terrible things that are to come if data monopolists get their way, are all about giant corporations getting hit by other giant corporations. Consumers have been living with these predatory practices for years.