Whose neutrality is it?


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Welcome to 1984. Egyptians were effectively cut off from the Internet around 12:30 a.m. Cairo time on Jan. 27, when the government shut down nine of the country’s 10 largest ISPs, blocking Internet access for some 88 percent of Egyptians. The blackout in Egypt — described as “unprecedented in Internet history” by online intelligence analyst James Cowie — is also the most salient example of why Net-neutrality legislation is incredibly dangerous. “Regulation is freedom” holds true only in the most Orwellian of novels.

Let’s be clear: We all want an easily accessible, open, and free Internet — and not just so we can illegally download celebrity sex tapes. The Internet has served as an incredibly powerful organizing tool domestically (just ask President Obama, who raised $500 million online during his campaign) and abroad, with Facebook and Twitter playing key roles in the mobilization of entire countries against undemocratic governments.

Net neutrality poses an existential threat to that openness — it would give government the ability to directly shut down the Internet. Those who advocate for its immediate implementation are, unintentionally, their own worst enemy.

Net neutrality is posited on the idea that ISPs (such as Mediacom and Qwest) want to control what you can and cannot see online. They could proceed to charge you an additional $10 a month to use Netflix, $15 a month to use Hulu, etc. Then, the hypothetical goes, they could start censoring political views by making political blogs pay-to-view.

Of course — and I think it’s important to repeat this — that scenario is hypothetical. In case you haven’t noticed, we already have a neutral Net, and it’s, in a word, amazing.

But Net-neutrality advocates want the government to step in and regulate the Internet to prevent ISPs from theoretically charging me an extra $15 a month to use Hulu. The government agency responsible for this regulation, however, would be our good ol’ buds over at the FCC.

The FCC, as I’m sure you know, has a terrible record of promoting open, free, and uncensored communication, and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is thrilled about the possibility of expanding his regulatory authority to the Internet. After all, the FCC has been trying to regulate cable and satellite TV since the Bush administration.

And while Net-neutrality proponents argue that the only thing the FCC would do is prevent ISPs from offering anything but a flat monthly fee for unlimited access, Genachowski’s words on an FCC-affiliated website are a little more chilling: “It is vital that illegal conduct be curtailed on the Internet. As I said in my Senate confirmation hearing, open Internet principles apply only to lawful content, services, and applications.”

Still sounds all well and good, but think about it for a minute. How much pirated (see: illegal) content do you think is on YouTube? On any peer-to-peer network? On PirateBay? WikiLeaks? What if the government decides that porn should be illegal again? All of these are under assault by either the government or other major corporations, and giving the government the authority to directly regulate what an ISP can and cannot do is incredibly dangerous for one more reason.

The Net will remain neutral as long as we have the ability to choose with which ISP we do business. In the immediate future, this is not a concern. According to the FCC itself, 95 percent of Americans live in a zip code with access to at least four different ISPs, and there are nearly 1,500 different ISPs nationwide (compared with Egypt’s big 10).

Here in Iowa, we have nearly 200 separate Internet providers, and Iowa City is among the aforementioned 95 percent.

Given the highly decentralized nature of American communications, the only way for the Internet’s neutrality to be truly threatened — and, in a worst-case scenario, shut off — is if the government is involved with and connected to every single ISP.

And if the government has the authority to regulate what I can and cannot see on the Internet, it will regulate what I can and cannot see on the Internet. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. The FCC started with radio, now regulates broadcast TV, and is trying to expand to cable and the Internet.

If the FCC gets full “Net-neutrality” regulatory powers of the Internet, it won’t remain neutral for long.

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