So Long and Thanks for All the Freedom

How big business broke the Internet.

April 23, 2014

Choose Privacy Week is coming up soon. Privacy is something librarians have always taken seriously, but since vacuuming up personal information became the dominant business model for the Internet and the government found it couldn’t resist getting its hands on those mountains of personal data, librarians’ obsession with privacy seems a little less quaint and strange.

Librarians don’t love privacy just because. We believe that privacy is a condition necessary for intellectual freedom. You can’t explore a controversial issues if you think your curiosity might come back to bite you. Today, it can, and it does. What you search for becomes part of your profile, thanks to the way a myriad of corporations gather, collate, mine, and trade our daily interactions.Those interactions can be used by the state to decide if you are a threat or not. With that much data in play, that much power in the hands of both corporations and the state, mistakes will be made. Innocent people will be punished. Dissent will be treated as a national security threat. Fear will chill not just speech but curiosity and our capacity to find stuff out so we can make up our minds.

I’m thinking about this just as the Wall Street Journal reports the sound of another nail being pounded into the coffin of net neutrality. This is not a simple topic. The concept of net neutrality is that everyone has an equal crack at Internet bandwidth.Spending money can’t buy you preferential treatment. Some big companies like Netflix are in favor of net neutrality for selfish reasons. They don’t want to pay more to deliver streaming video to customers. By some accounts, Youtube and Netflix traffic accounts for around half of all Internet traffic. Yikes! Maybe they should pay extra. But there’s a catch. If ISPs (which are increasingly dominated by our friends, the cable guys) can charge extra for preferential treatment, they will be able to influence what we get access to on the Internet, and small and independent contributors to Internet content may get squeezed out. Reportedly, the new FCC regulations will prohibit ISPs from completely cutting off access to content. They’ll just be able to route it through a slow lane during the last part of its travels to your computer, making harder to reach while large corporations get the fast lane. (Apart from the "last mile" connection between the ISP and your computer, the giants are already cutting deals for network interconnection for mutual advantage. And the giants want to get even bigger.)

I see a connecting thread between the issues of privacy and net neutrality. Early on, the Internet was a medium for sharing information and communicating with each other. Once it became a significant platform for commerce, a lot of old media companies had to scramble as their revenue streams dried up, and big players began to duke it out over “eyeballs,” that rather gruesome shorthand for our time and attention. Google figured out how to monetize our search habits and distort search results to make their services more effective for delivering advertising. Facebook figured out how to make it easy and tempting to share messages and photos and social connections so that they could monetize our lives. Now giant media companies are dividing up the nation as they take over Internet service provision and use the Internet to serve their content and advertising. The FCC could have ruled the Internet a public utility, which would give it authority to impose some consumer-friendly regulation, but it chose not to. So the Internet is turning into a nightmarish mutation of the shopping mall, cable television, and Big Brother. Yet it also remains an incredibly important vehicle for the exchange of information.

Privacy matters. So does free and open access to a network that doesn’t discriminate in favor of giant corporations. We’ll miss the Internet when it’s gone. 

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