I wasn’t there when the Internet was invented, and I wasn’t around for the first e-mail, but I do remember Eternal September.
In the fall of 1990, one of my professors at Miami University signed me and the rest of the students in my class up for access to the school’s VAX minicomputer. The idea was that we would use e-mail to send him our papers and to communicate with each other. To do this, I had to walk across the quad to the 24/7 computer lab in MacCracken Hall, where I used a gutted IBM PC/AT as a video terminal.
Our professor gave us explicit written instructions on which options in the VAX menu would let us get our work done. My classmates were befuddled. Most of them had never touched a computer before, unless you count an Atari 2600 or a NES as a computer. About four weeks into the semester, the VAX requirement was walked back. We could go back to using typewriters or writing by hand. Everybody went back. Everybody, that is, but me.
By the time I left for winter break I’d figured out quite a bit about the VAX, including how it connected to other systems of what started as the DARPAnet but with the addition of various educational and commercial enterprises had come to be known as the Internet. I stayed on the VAX for the rest of my time at Miami. I was there for Eternal September, the day that AOL users were given access to USENET discussion forums in September of 1993. (It was actually September 11, 1993, but history has retconned it to just “some time in September” for semi-obvious reasons.) By 1996 I was working in the business, as a network engineer for Litel. In May of 1997, I opened up my “BMX Basics” website. In late 1999 I founded a web-hosting cooperative. In 2000 I joined the Free Hardware Project at MIT, only to see it fall apart in the aftermath of the other September 11th. In the years that followed, I made the majority of my living selling, developing, and implementing a variety of systems and solutions that were based on the principles of Free Software as laid down by Richard Stallman, whom I met around the time the AI Lab became the Media Lab.
Why tell you all of this? Simply as deep background for what I’m going to tell you next: I believe in a free Internet, I believe in software freedom, I believe in data freedom. But I don’t believe in “Net Neutrality”, and I’ll explain why.
What is Net Neutrality, anyway? As implemented under President Obama’s guidance, Net Neutrality is a fairly complex set of regulations with a single admirable-sounding goal: to prevent your Internet Service Provider from selectively blocking, editing, or slowing down the websites you visit. Mr. Obama’s “bright-line” rules, not to be confused with any “red lines” he may or may not have laid down elsewhere, went like so:
* No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.
* No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.
* Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.
* No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.
All of this sounds pretty good to me. So why, then, do I have no objection to the FCC’s vote against Net Neutrality today? It’s simple. President Obama’s net neutrality laws were designed around an Internet that no longer exists, and they merely shift the power of censorship from one set of corporations to another, less accountable set of corporations.
Let’s start by looking at what the Internet used to be, and what it actually is nowadays. When I started on USENET in 1990, the Internet was a wide-open international community of people who traded ideas, challenged preconceptions, discussed big concepts, and also occasionally engaged in some really bizarre behavior. It was the Net that gave rise to the furry community, as an example. But the vast majority of data that flowed between the VAXen and UNIX systems of the day was educational in nature. Through the early Internet, I learned about everything from how to build a staggered-spoke bicycle wheel to how to diagnose whether power steering fluid had been boiled badly enough to need a change. I communicated with people around the globe, people who would have forever been distant and unreachable to me otherwise. My BMX Basics site helped me meet riders from Singapore to Bolivia. In 1999, I had a group of riders in South America contact me and ask if they could come hang out for a while. One of them never left; he’s a director at BMW Financial Services now. That’s the power of the Web when it’s used to connect people and exchange ideas.
In 2017, however, that old egalitarian Internet is long dead. According to ReCode, today’s Internet traffic is:
* 51% video. That’s right. The Internet is more than half videos now.
* 22% IP phone and voice service.
* 18% “web and data”. That includes your Carbnonite backups, your Amazon Glacier, and all the FTP traffic out there.
* 8% filesharing.
* 1% gaming.
By 2021, the “web and data” portion will be down to eleven percent. Video and phone services will represent 82% of traffic. Are you surprised by that, in an era where the euphemism “Netflix and chill” has become omnipresent? The vast majority of people use the Internet as an advanced form of cable television.
I’m not particularly sympathetic to companies like Time Warner, Comcast, and Verizon, but you have to admit that they have a semi-reasonable gripe with a legislative framework that basically forces them to serve as a conduit for Netflix and YouTube. Imagine, if you will, a law called “dealership neutrality” where you could go into your local Ford dealer and they would be forced to deliver and service a Chevy that you bought over the Internet. Or how about “medical neutrality” where you could buy your pacemaker on the open market and then your doctor would have to be responsible for installing it at no charge?
As written, Net Neutrality has nothing to do with freedom from censorship. It’s the transfer of income from ISPs to Silicon Valley firms by government fiat. Netflix and YouTube are free to set up nice, tidy, tax-deductible offices and staff them lightly with H1-Bs. Then their water is carried at no charge by everybody from the backbone providers to the dirt-poor rural connection providers in West Virginia, who have to do the dirty work of making sure that their switching hardware is up to the demands posed by eighty-two percent Netflix and chill. The Silicon Valley firms enjoy hockey-stick valuations and billion-dollar paydays while the ISPs deal with everything from unionized workforces to acts of God. Nobody has cable TV any more. Nobody has a landline, either — but the local network providers are still on the hook for all that infrastructure. I haven’t had a landline in the house for a decade but if I sell tomorrow the new owner will expect that he can get 911 service on Day Two. More importantly, the government will stand behind him on that expectation.
Oh, but Netflix isn’t the only free-rider on Net Neutrality. Facebook, Google, and Amazon use the web to provide you with “free” services where your personal data is the real medium of exchange. They use the Internet to suck retail jobs out of your neighborhood, they kill your marriages by “reconnecting” wives with college boyfriends and first loves, they drive you into depression then sell you the products you think you need to climb out of it. Facebook, Instagram, and other forms of social media are bona-fide addictions for the vast majority of Americans. Eight years ago, a friend of mine complained to me that his wife was back on her iPhone in less than a minute after they finished having sex. It was the exception then but it’s the rule now for most couples.
You can make the argument that the Silicon Valley crowd is a lot like the tobacco industry or the high-fructose-corn-syrup industry. They make a product that is provably bad for people and they rely on other entities to bear the costs while they make the profit. Of course Google and Reddit and all the others are going to be in favor of net neutrality. It’s good business for them. They earn money using a network that was built with public funds and maintained by a public-private partnership that is entirely external to them.
Yet I could personally live with every last bit of the above if it meant we had a truly censorship-free Internet. Alas, such is not the case. Not only do the Silicon Valley firms play favorites with everything from PageRank to Reddit bans, they are actively and effectively censoring organizations and people that don’t accept their views. Even the loony-left crowd at Slate sees an obvious problem with GoDaddy’s and Google’s decisions to “unregister” politically “offensive” sites. I don’t personally care much for the Daily Stormer and other openly anti-Semitic sites, but I am deeply troubled by the idea that a “coalition of the willing” among private companies can effectively censor unpleasant or offensive viewpoints.
The worst thing about Google’s decision to censor offensive websites is that ordinary citizens have no appeal. If your local ISP censors a website, you might be able to get them to back off. But you’re not gonna do anything about Google. They are beyond your ability to affect. And they are committed to the “no-platform” doctrine that is increasingly making speech in America a one-sided affair. This year it was Daily Stormer. Next year it will be Heartiste. The following year it will be Vox Day, then Mickey Kaus, then the Washington Times. As a man with a Jewish son who has right of return, I find it absolutely horrifying that “no-platforming” is now being used to silence pro-Israel voices across the West.
The Silicon Valley crowd is not truly interested in a neutral Net. What they want is nothing more or less than an open pipeline through which to deliver the content that they believe to be appropriate. That’s why all the propaganda out there is about “OMG YOU MIGHT HAVE TO PAY TEN DOLLARS A MONTH TO USE SOCIAL MEDIA.” So what if you did? Most of us would be better off if we had to pay for social media. It might cause us to reconsider our use of it.
Trump’s FCC was right to slap the wrist of the Net Neutrality types. It’s a bad law. It doesn’t protect the Internet and it doesn’t prevent censorship. All it does it make the conditions of Eternal September truly eternal. It reduces the Internet to cable television, web shopping, and cybersex. It helps to destroy the original purpose of the Internet, which was to exchange ideas and knowledge rather than consume Hollywood movies and YouTube narcissism. In fact, I can’t help but hope that the ISPs out there make it ruinously expensive to watch Netflix and visit Facebook. I hope they make it so expensive that people decide to give up on the Netflix, give up on the chill, and try reading something for once in their lives. Wake me up… when September ends.