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    Net Neutrality, Monopoly, and the Death of the Democratic Internet

    Written by

    Alexis Ohanian and Roy Singham

    A map of the global internet, which shows the US's high penetration and centrality to the web. Image: Internet Census 2012 

    The early internet emerged from an academic and military context and was designed to suit the needs of its early users. Academics valued free and equal sharing of content and democratic governance. Military users resisted encrypting the network itself, relegating security to an add-on that has proven difficult to implement in practice. There was really no business model in the early DNA of the net.

    Those fundamental characteristics resonate to this day, on a network that has been transformed in scale and intent. Corporations have now moved in and created a global marketplace where super-monopolies compete to profit from the actions of unaware users. States exploit its “open and boundary-less” nature to spy on citizens and wage covert war. As a sad reflection of power dynamics in our increasingly unequal society, it is a vehicle that often drowns out diverse languages, voices, and opinions, and reinforces views and content that serves the interest of those who largely control it.

    Despite all these issues, one redeeming element of the early internet survives: net neutrality. Net neutrality means that all traffic on the internet is treated equally. Anyone can start up a website and make it instantly available to the world on an equal basis as the biggest, richest corporations and most powerful governments. Net neutrality is an anti-discrimination policy for the net, and we are on the verge of losing it.

    Under a new set of rules put forward by the FCC, the oligopolies that provide internet access in the US would be allowed to begin charging content providers for differential treatment—essentially creating a “fast lane” on the internet for content providers who can afford to pay while relegating those who can’t to a lower quality of service.

    This would end the era of democratic access that has driven unprecedented innovation, creativity, and empowerment for millions of people online. 

    US broadband infrastructure is privately owned and operated by huge companies that often enjoy a near-monopoly position in their markets. According to FCC data, as of December 2012, nearly 30 percent of US households had only one choice for broadband provider. Monopoly holders have little incentive to weaken their profits by investing in infrastructure to improve service, so unsurprisingly the US is falling behind on global comparisons of broadband speed.

    Perhaps most damaging of all, network operators would have a powerful incentive to continue to under-invest in infrastructure. They would be allowed to charge for preferential access to a resource they could manage to ensure remained artificially scarce.

    The FCC should be looking at the appalling state of US broadband and aggressively moving to strengthen regulation of providers and to promote investment and upgrades. Instead, is is proposing to create new opportunities for giant telecoms to gouge their customers. This would further entrench the dominance of today’s market giants and reduce opportunities for disruption by innovative newcomers. The shortsightedness of such a move is astounding.

    The end of net neutrality would create an elite private toll road on the internet, with grave consequences for us all. For internet users, the cost of those tolls would certainly be passed on via increased prices for the services we depend on. Anyone who operates a website would have to pay up or operate from a permanent disadvantage, further accelerating the trend towards giant digital monopolies.

    Perhaps most damaging of all, network operators would have a powerful incentive to continue to under-invest in infrastructure. Capacity constraints on their network would be transformed into profit opportunities. They would be allowed to charge for preferential access to a resource they could manage to ensure remained artificially scarce.

    Other countries understand the importance of net neutrality. In the past few months, legislation prohibiting content discrimination online has been approved in Chile, Ecuador, Brasil, and the European Parliament. Though the US government constantly issues rhetoric opposing the “fragmentation” of the internet and rails against those who would “censor” online activity, it apparently sees no problem with selling network priority to the highest bidder—effectively fragmenting and censoring the net by economic means.

    A neutral internet puts the power in the hands of the people, not the 1 percent. Without net neutrality, a community like reddit that motivates millions of internet citizens to organize, act, share and create might never have gotten off the ground. An organization like ThoughtWorks that creates jobs and sparks innovation could be stifled. The future of the internet could very well come to be dominated by incumbents and others rich enough to pay new tolls required to succeed online.

    The internet as a system with value to broader society is on life support. The battle to retain net neutrality is a defining moment for US companies, leaders and internet users to stand up to preserve what remains of this critical public good before it is destroyed forever. Go to may15.savetheinternet.com to get involved.

    Roy Singham is the founder and chairman of ThoughtWorks,a technology company specializing in software consulting, delivery and products seeking to revolutionize the IT industry and serve society.  

    Alexis Ohanian, is the co-founder of reddit and author of “Without their Permission: How the 21st Century Will be Made, Not Managed.”

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