Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
”The internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes.”
When Republican US senator Ted Stevens made these comments last June, he instantly became the butt of jokes across the blogosphere – not so much because he thought the internet (or ‘an’ internet, as he also put it) was a series of tubes, but because he also happens to chair the committee in charge of regulating these ‘tubes’.
Worse still, the amendment under debate concerned ‘net neutrality’, the end of which could mean the end of the ‘equal-access’ internet as we know it. The end of net neutrality would see the emergence of a two-tiered or multi-tiered internet, with information from wealthy corporations guaranteed priority distribution to web users.
In the past year, a number of the major internet service providers in the US, including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, have spent millions of dollars lobbying US Congress members to contest legislation that would prevent them from offering ‘quality of service’ guarantees to certain content providers in return for a premium fee.
Under the kind of quality of service agreements they want to offer, the ISPs would guarantee that information from premium-paying content providers reached users ahead of all other information.The websites of the large corporations (the only entities wealthy enough to afford premium fees) would load quickly and without interruption, while those of a small-time blogger might load more slowly, or not at all. This is the internet equivalent of priority queues for business class travellers, or the guest lists that let the ‘beautiful people’ enter a club before the rest of us under-tanned, cellulite-stricken plebians.
To a greater or lesser extent, the packets of information that currently wend their way across the information superhighway – not down tubes, nor on the back of a truck – are delivered blindly.There is no discrimination depending on either the type of information or where it comes from. Supporters of this status quo advocate the introduction of legislation to protect net neutrality by banning ISPs from introducing quality of service guarantee fees. But the ISPs themselves, backed by the US Chamber of Commerce, network equipment manufacturers such as Cisco Systems and neoliberal think-tanks ranging from the Cato Institute and the Ludwig von Mises Institute to our old friends, the Project for a New American Century, argue against the introduction of any such ‘restrictive’ legislation.
These opponents of net neutrality claim that it is anti-competitive, inhibits innovation and presents a danger to homeland security. But their opposition to net neutrality is really born out of financial concerns.The big telecom companies are attempting to recoup the costs of building improved telecommunications infrastructure from the major corporate providers of content, such as CNN and MTV, which offer bandwidth-intensive video content.
Quality of service guarantees are intended to sweeten this otherwise bitter pill.
The supporters of net neutrality, which include such more-or-less progressive forces as Moveon.org, the American Library Association, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the inventor of the internet,Tim Berners-Lee, as well as several household name content providers such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, also deploy arguments with a ‘defence-of-the-freemarket’ theme. They, quite accurately, point out that a multi-tiered internet would see discrimination in favour of existing major content providers, as upstart content providers or applications could hardly grab users’ attention if access to their websites was much slower than access to those of the corporate incumbents.
The net neutrality supporters are lucky to have champions with such deep pockets, but ultimately they are looking after their own interests. Premium fees would eat into their bottom line, and so they want to avoid them. If it came to the crunch, however, and net neutrality was to wither away, the likes of Google and Microsoft are more than wealthy enough to pay these fees and continue to survive and prosper.
For the rest of us, the issue is more fundamental. For all the discussion about the ever-diminishing cost of access to technology, the reality is that throughout history the means of mass communication has been at first quite widely accessible only to be later restricted. Technologies are developed that reduce the costs for larger producers while doing little to aid smaller publications, thus skewing the market towards the former.
By the first few decades of the 20th century, for example, larger newspapers had all but squeezed out the myriad small and local labour ‘rags’ that had earlier flourished. Today, the cost of publishing a glossy colour magazine or printing, binding and distributing an affordable paperback is similarly out of reach of virtually all but the major media conglomerates. Professional television and film production also remains, for the most part, the preserve of elite content producers, despite the development of cheap video cameras and consumer-priced video-editing software.
The internet remains highly egalitarian by comparison. A blog by an anti-war teenager from Utah is as easy to access as the website of the US defence department. The Coke boycott website, Killer Coke, which highlights murderous labour rights abuses in Colombia associated with Coca- Cola, can be accessed as quickly as the drink’s own website. This will end with the end of net neutrality.
Of course, with or without net neutrality legislation, internet content is not immune to the myriad market conditions that favour some websites over others, ranging from search optimisation and sponsored links to plain old advertising – or simply recruiting George Clooney and John Cusack as columnists, as in the case of US liberal Ariana Huffington’s overnight ‘blog’ success, the ‘Huffington Post’. In reality, there can be no such thing as true net neutrality within the far-from-neutral market. Even so, progressives should oppose any further corporate favouritism through the appearance of quality of service guarantees.The net may not be completely neutral, but we don’t want to see it become even more unequal.
In Europe, Deutsche Telekom (which owns T-Mobile in the UK) and Telecom Italia have begun to make noises similar to their American ISP counterparts.
Deutsche Telekom is in the process of constructing a fibre-optic network that will deliver information at 25 times the speed of current top-end broadband to several German cities. The cost of building this is estimated at three billion euros.
They hope to get some of that back through premium guarantees.
Meanwhile, there is no groundswell of concern over the issue in Europe, as there is across the Atlantic. The EU has so far taken a hands-off approach. The problem is that a neutral attitude to net neutrality – in other words, not introducing legislation to prevent telecom companies from introducing tiered pricing to content providers – is precisely the regulatory environment that the ISPs want.
The reality is that EU legislators are not neutral on the issue at all. The EU Commission is not filled with octogenarian Mr Magoo senators who stumble into doing what the telecommunications giants wish them to do because they think the internet is some sort of information water slide.
Brussels is a haven of neoliberal fundamentalists who know precisely what the internet is and precisely what it means to be neutral on a moving train – or truck.Save the Internet, the US coalition to preserve net neutrality, brings together a strange collection of bedfellows – ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Gun Owners of America, and Feminist Majority to the Christian Coalition for America.
Its supporters include liberal bloggers and alternative media activists, along with hard-right ‘Insta-Pundit’ Glenn Reynolds. It includes Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig and free software activists, making common cause with some of the wealthiest corporations in the world – among them Microsoft and Google – although the latter are not a part of the coalition itself.
This rather bizarre rainbow coalition, created in April 2006, gathered more than a million signatures in two months to petition the US Congress in favour of net neutrality. Its methods mix traditional grassroots petitioning with YouTube video slots and an ironically-titled theme song, ‘God Save the Internet’.
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
'We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation', writes Kate Hadley.
Priti Patel's shady deals are business as usual. Enough is enough, writes Eleanor Penny
Boris Johnson is a local disaster and a national embarrassment. He must go, writes James Clouting
The global elite have been stealing from society on an unprecedented scale, writes Tom Walker
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum