It’s revealing that after passing net neutrality rules last week, one of FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s first stops was at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The MWC is one of the tech industry’s annual gadget bacchanals—a we’re-here-to-make-news confab on the order of SXSW, CES, or one of Apple’s stage shows in the Jobs era. (It’s where Samsung unveiled the new Galaxy S6 phone, which you can read all about in at least 3,170 different articles, according to Google News.)
The FCC had just boldly resisted the lobbying pressures of telecom companies, Republican politicians, and anyone who thinks that moderate regulation means that all the job creators will get very mad and take their toys away. Supported by President Obama and a number of major companies, the FCC’s move still had the air of a populist gesture, with news reports citing the millions of comments the regulator had received, all in support of an “open Internet.”
Yet here was Wheeler at an industry event that—like most of its type—amounts to a lavish networking and promotional event for rich executives (civilians can attend for an exorbitant fee). Wheeler’s presence was meant to reassure Internet service providers that they could continue to do exactly what they had been doing all along. “Go ahead, do what you want, as long as it’s just and reasonable,” Wheeler told an interviewer.
Wheeler is a victim of bad politics, and his salesmanship is a kind of necessity when most regulators, and much of Congress, are captured by industry. But his choices do serve as a useful lens through which to look at net neutrality: not as a democratic victory in the struggle to maintain a putatively open Internet, but as a victory for one set of oligarchs (Facebook, Microsoft, et al) over another (the ISPs) in their quest to preserve the lucrative status quo.
And it’s not as if ISPs are struggling—though their service is. The United States has some of the slowest and least competitive ISPs in the world. Providers offer slow service for high prices, and that’s not because of technological limitations—it’s because it makes them more money. Without the kind of “common carriage” rules promised by net neutrality, ISPs could have continued to offer crappy service, while also setting aside separate fast lines for whichever big content providers could be convinced to pay. They have been stopped, at least for now, from going in that direction, but there remains little incentive for them to offer better prices or speeds—especially when many people only have one provider to choose from.
That’s why Google’s introduction of fiber service in several metropolitan areas, its tests with LTE-providing balloons, and its just-announced plan to get into the mobile phone service business have attracted so much interest. Sure, it’s Google, lifeblood of speculation-mad tech journalists everywhere. But it’s also a promised deliverance from an Internet experience that is, in many ways, awful.
As heretical as this may sound, try to consider the Internet not as some magical, open, democracy-boosting public square. See it for what it is: an informational marketplace dominated by a new generation of middlemen, venal price-gougers, and greedy platform owners; the most sophisticated corporate and governmental surveillance apparatus ever created; a stunted business environment characterized by bubble thinking and rigid adherence to a single revenue model; and one of the great drivers of wealth inequality today.
Might it also be a utility? Utilities tend to be shared resources that governments protect on behalf of the public from privatization or other forms of corruption. They’re supposed to be dependable, though that has been chiseled away in recent years, as any Detroit resident with a dry tap might tell you. It seems that we could only wish for the Internet to be a utility—to be safe, regulated, affordable, reliable, and in the public service. To be boring. Net neutrality is less a step in that direction than a form of bureaucratic inertia designed to prevent a flawed infrastructure from getting any worse.
Last May, during another burst of interest in net neutrality, Ian Bogost published an essay called “What Do We Save When We Save the Internet?” Bogost called for a realignment in how we think about the Internet and the homilies we’re so quick to issue when it seems imperiled. He even went so far as to propose that if net neutrality failed, and if the Internet were to be made into some pay-to-pay marketplace, perhaps that wouldn’t be so bad. He wasn’t calling for an accelerationist stance—no “heightening the contradictions” here—but an acknowledgment that maybe what we have isn’t worth saving. There’s “something profoundly terrible about the status quo,” Bogost wrote. Ensuring its eventual obsolescence might offer the opportunity to build something more equitable, something new.
Maybe something new is being built right now. Those who once proclaimed the utopian potential of the Internet now worry about its “Balkanization,” about countries like Brazil building their own national networks and keeping data within their borders. But those countries may be the only ones innovating in a meaningful way. By establishing sovereignty over their communications infrastructure, they are serving their own national interests, but they may also be serving the interests of their people. (After all, this basic narrative describes the Defense Department’s development of “the Internet.”)
If this new network employs good encryption and protects privacy; if it allows people more control over their personal data; if, like the city of Sao Paolo, it shuns advertising—well, we might find that this Internet, our Internet, is less special than we imagined.