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Fri January 17, 2014
Here's what the decision ending net neutrality means for tech & opportunity
It was only a matter of time before the cable and phone companies triumphed over net neutrality.
What's that? Net neutrality is one of the most fundamental principles undergirding Robert Cailliau and Timothy Berners-Lee's vision for this thing called "the internet" that they invented with some folks at the CERN lab in Switzerland. By connecting computers and networks around the world the idea of net neutrality was that the world wide web, one small part of the internet, would be "information agnostic." The internet, this principles goes, would not discriminate for or against different kinds of information. Educational information wouldn't have more bandwidth than, say, an internet channel devoted entirely to reality television.
Just this week, the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of appeals ruled in favor of Verizon by striking down the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) net neutrality rule.
What does the ruling mean, if anything, for low-income and other internet users? You might think, "Well, most low-income people can't afford broadband, so they've always dealt with a less than open internet." That would be true. Access to equipment and hardware is still limited by income.
But what about those places where people without broadband at home use the internet? The potential censorship or direct marketing based on cable and telephone companies picking and choosing which sites to block shrinks the world wide web down even further for people who use the internet in libraries and schools. Already information access on the internet is being reduced to the have's and have-not's: you have super-fast, fiber optics broadband, I have overburdened copper networks with mediocre speed. For the privileged, the demise of net neutrality might mean paying even more for broadband access to Netflix or YouTube---no more buffering...buffering...buffering? But for the less privileged, losing net neutrality puts all of the world's information further out of reach and condemning some to "pay to play" deals.
Comcast, for example, just made a massive multimillion dollar, three-year deal with Khan Academy, the online educational resource. As Slate reports, Comcast will donate a large amount of money and public service announcements to Khan Academy, but also promote Comcast's own Internet Essentials program. Internet Essentials is part of a regulatory commitment to the FCC to try and close the digital divide by providing underserved communities with broadband access. In addition to criticisms about the quality of this internet service, with this recent blow to net neutrality, the Comcast-Khan Academy partnership may be a very early glimpse into how information and access to information becomes even more stratified by the Court's curtailment of net neutrality. Khan Academy's slogan is, "Completely free, forever." With this latest court decision against an open internet, they might need to change their slogan to, "Completely free, forever, for us only...and our friends." The specter of an exclusive, our boutique, access internet looms.
Read the D.C. District Court Decision here; it's surprisingly interesting and lays out the history of net neutrality even if the court did just end it. Wired Magazine's take on this case is not nearly as "all is lost" as most other media sources.