”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’.
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’