Today, thou­sands of web­sites around the world — rang­ing from those belong­ing to big firms like Net­flix to small non­prof­its like NPI — are over­lay­ing sym­bol­ic spin­ning wheels of death on top of their con­tent to raise aware­ness of the need for net neu­tral­i­ty, the prin­ci­ple that all traf­fic on the Inter­net should be treat­ed fair­ly and equal­ly. It’s part of a joint action nick­named Inter­net Slow­down Day.

Why are we doing this and why is net neu­tral­i­ty so impor­tant? Well, with­out net neu­tral­i­ty, com­pa­nies like Com­cast, AT&T and Ver­i­zon would have the pow­er to decide what traf­fic could have pri­or­i­ty. They could set up express lanes on the Inter­net for deliv­ery of con­tent and charge for speedy access, for instance.

To under­stand what they have in mind and why it would be so harm­ful, con­sid­er how cable tele­vi­sion works now. There’s all these tiers: Com­pa­nies like Com­cast decide what goes into each pack­age they want to sell. They pick the chan­nels and set the prices. It’s take it or leave it. Typ­i­cal­ly, three or four pack­ages are offered (basic, expand­ed, and pre­mi­um… or in Com­cast par­lance, Starter, Pre­ferred, and Pre­mier). Each pack­age costs more and includes access to extra channels.

To show cus­tomers on the low­er tiers what they’re miss­ing out on, cable and satel­lite com­pa­nies even make sure that their on-screen chan­nel guides con­tain a com­plete list­ing of all the chan­nels they car­ry. When switch­ing to a chan­nel that is not includ­ed in the pack­age (for instance, HBO or Show­time), a mes­sage is dis­played prompt­ing the user to call in to upgrade if they would like to get the channel.

Com­cast and its fel­low cable giants want to be able to cre­ate tiers on the Inter­net, too, but dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed by speed and reli­a­bil­i­ty, as opposed to access.

It is unlike­ly we would see a cen­sor­ship regime (there would be a huge out­cry if the likes of Com­cast tried to charge every­body a toll or fee to put traf­fic through), but we could see traf­fic to cer­tain web­sites being giv­en pref­er­en­tial treatment.

That would cre­ate a very dan­ger­ous, prob­lem­at­ic prece­dent, because the Inter­net has been oper­at­ing under the prin­ci­ple of net neu­tral­i­ty since its incep­tion. Net neu­tral­i­ty is what makes the Inter­net so open and democratic.

If com­pa­nies like Com­cast could legal­ly prac­tice dis­crim­i­na­tion, as they want to do, it’d still be pos­si­ble to get to NPI’s web­site, but it might not load as fast as the web­sites of Google, Ama­zon, Microsoft, or Apple, who have deep pock­ets and could pre­sum­ably afford to pay for inclu­sion in the upper­most tier.

The debate over net neu­tral­i­ty goes far beyond best prac­tices for net­work man­age­ment, though. Tim Wu, who coined the phase net neu­tral­i­ty, explains:

Most peo­ple have a rough sense that net neu­tral­i­ty is about the rules for Inter­net traf­fic; but the pre­cise debates about reg­u­la­to­ry author­i­ty and the rules them­selves are abstruse.

Net neu­tral­i­ty has seized the moment because it is stand­ing in for a nation­al con­ver­sa­tion about deep­er values.

It is, among oth­er things, a debate about opportunity—or more pre­cise­ly, the Inter­net as anoth­er name for it.

The Web’s famous open­ness to any­one with vision, per­sis­tence, and min­i­mal cash recalls the geo­graph­ic fron­tiers of ear­li­er Amer­i­ca and the tech­no­log­i­cal fron­tiers of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, as in indus­tries like radio and ear­ly com­put­ing. As such, the mythol­o­gy of the Inter­net is not dis­sim­i­lar to that of Amer­i­ca, or any open country—as a place where any­one with pas­sion or fool­ish opti­mism might speak his or her piece or open a busi­ness and see what happens.

No suc­cess is guar­an­teed, but any­one gets to take a shot. That’s what free speech and a free mar­ket look like in prac­tice rather than in theory.

There’s a lot at stake here. The Inter­net has served as a launch­ing pad for thou­sands of ven­tures, from com­mer­cial to phil­an­thropic to polit­i­cal, like NPI. Some, like Google and Ama­zon, have become For­tune 500 com­pa­nies. The Inter­net is incred­i­bly demo­c­ra­t­ic; it was designed to fos­ter two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It is vital that the prin­ci­ples on which the Inter­net was found­ed and con­tin­ue to oper­ate be enshrined into law, so that it remains demo­c­ra­t­ic, open, and free.

We invite you to join us in stand­ing up for the Inter­net today. Send an email, write a let­ter, or make a call to your U.S. rep­re­sen­ta­tive and your U.S. sen­a­tors, as well as the Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion. Add your voice to all the oth­ers call­ing for net neu­tral­i­ty. Togeth­er, we can beat the cable com­pa­nies and their armies of lob­by­ists, and ensure the Inter­net is defended.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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