As I write this, the FCC is considering changing the rules for providing content over the Internet. If the change goes through, data streaming over the Internet will be separated into two streams – “fast lane” and everything else.
In the short term, this change may bring us faster Netflix access and more better high quality TV shows and movies and that will be wonderful. In the long term, this change would set a dangerous precedent – that, at the bits level, content is not just one, homogeneous, thing.
It would be impossible to argue that all information is the same. 2+2 is information. Poems are information. Hate speech is information. It is incumbent upon us as a society with Internet access to help us deal with it — to protect our minors from information that would hurt them (though the scope of such information has been drawn far too wide, in my opinion); to be able to react, and weigh in, and talk to each other about what we see; to support and criticize, publicly and privately, the bits that we encounter.
It is also incumbent upon us to not put locks or gates that bar the spread of information. As innocuous as a “fast lane” decision might appear, it is precisely the first step to such a lock. As soon as we introduce the notion that some information is easier to access, the power structures within our society will seek to relegate undesirable information to ever more-locked, ever more-barred conditions. Environmental websites? Too radical. Christian fundamentalist blocks? Too conservative. News organizations that disagree with the mainstream opinion? Too different, we will say, and we will put up another lock.
That way lies totalitarianism, stagnation, ossification. I sincerely hope we do not go down that path, but instead move away from it — to a world where more people can access more web pages, regardless of race, class, gender, SES, and so on. If my writing on this seems a bit dramatic, that is because this is an issue worthy of drama – information is our currency, our brain-surrogate, our social bonds. We should treat it with the utmost respect. We should nurture its freedom, not lock it away.
I hope the FCC listens to mine and others’ voices and does not go through with its decision. I hope the Net remains Neutral, and free.