Sunday December 03, 2017

The net hasn't been neutral for a long time

Many are protesting the possible end of Net Neutrality in the U.S. But does it really matter?

Many are protesting the possible end of Net Neutrality in the U.S. But does it really matter?

Listen 11:08

What do net neutrality, peanut butter and electricity have in common?

Well, nothing, really. But  we're going to use them to try to explain net neutrality, which has once again become an issue in the U.S.

So here goes.

Say you're at the grocery store. To buy some peanut butter.

When you reach the peanut butter aisle, you get to choose which brand you want — but only based on what the store has chosen to stock. So if you're a Jif person, and that store doesn't carry it, you're out of luck.

Same goes for the price. So if the store wants to promote one brand of peanut butter over another, that's the store's choice. So if you want Skippy, you might have to pay more for it than Kraft. And crunchy might cost more than smooth… you get the idea.

Now, compare that to electricity. When you order electricity service, you just pay the company for it. They connect your home to the grid. And then you can plug in whatever kind of toaster you want to make the toast to put your peanut butter on.

peanut butter on toast

The wonderful confluence of electricity and peanut butter.

Got it?

Since 2015, Internet Service Providers in the U.S. like Comcast and AT&T have been governed like the electric utility. They provide the service, but they can't make it cheaper for you to, say, stream Crackle than Netflix. They have to stay neutral.

But in two weeks, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is expected to revoke that status, and allow them to be more like a grocery store.

That means, for example, that Comcast could charge a premium for Netflix, because it would prefer you to watch NBC (which, conveniently, Comcast owns).

This, understandably, has a lot of people upset, because it seems to go against the spirit of the Internet being free and open.

Ian Bogost is not one of them. That's because he says the internet hasn't been free and open for a long time. Ian holds the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He's also a contributing editor to The Atlantic.

352 Ian Bogost

Ian Bogost

"Net neutrality makes sense, but it won't fix the internet," he says.

Ian recently wrote an essay in the Atlantic explaining that large tech companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon already control much of how users see the internet: whether it's through search engines or apps.

"I'm thinking of things like the way that Facebook and Google and the fake news issue has impacted democracy. We've had these massive security breaches where personal data has been released in major quantities," he says.

"We've had all these issues with the internet that don't really have anything to do with access to it."

The idea that net neutrality was supposed to allow small players to be on an equal footing as bigger players is suspect, he says. And even small tech companies often hope to be acquired by one of the larger companies.

"Everyone really dislikes their wireless provider. They're easy to hate. They charge a lot. Google and Facebook, you get their services for free, in exchange for your personal data. But now some of that affinity is shifting, and there's a little more balance in who are the positive and negative players."

Ian suggests that anti-trust legislation could be one way to prevent these huge companies from essentially controlling how users experience the internet.

"There's a reason to believe that maybe anti-trust legislation may be justified."