For those of us who work in any technology related field, the issue of Net Neutrality and its threatened rollback had been looming over us in recent weeks. Despite the fact that polls show that 76 percent of Americans support Net Neutrality, the FCC has now voted to open the door to drastically changing than the picture painted by the former 2015 policy that solidified an open web.
Net Neutrality is the principle that the Internet should be inherently fair to all types of traffic, websites, users, and content. Internet providers have to provide the same access to all websites, and they cannot tip the scales to make users have a better experience on one site, while deliberately slowing down traffic to another site or even blocking it all together. Without Net Neutrality, Internet service providers will be able to determine your bill based on what websites you visit and potentially block certain types of websites based on the content they share or the service they provide.
The issue of higher costs for consumers is real, representing a direct impact to our pocketbooks and drawing grim predictions of a la carte website package surcharges illustrated by the widely shared — albeit somewhat misleading — image of a Portuguese Internet provider’s website displaying internet packages broken up based on which websites a user wants to be able to access. Despite this very real concern, the long-term effects are far bigger than the nickel-and-dimeing we’ve already become accustomed to from cable companies.
Many people like to compare the Internet to a public utility; a system of private companies regulated to provide a public good certainly makes sense — for the structure of the system itself. I’d like to suggest a better analogy, one that comes to mind when you really examine the role the internet plays in society: the Internet is like the system of paved roads that every person in our community relies on (and has equal access to) to move around.
Let’s look back, in chronological order, on the role that roads have played in society: A century ago, traveling to a public space like a town square was once the way a new voice could be heard by the community; now marginalized communities can find a voice online. A few decades ago, traveling to the library was how students researched assignments and grew academically; now academic pursuits are achieved online. And just a few years ago, any change to your vehicle registration had to happen in-person at the DMV; now many of these services are available online.
Our local reliance on the Internet for access to basic government services isn’t the only reason our area should be paying close attention to the dwindling light of Net Neutrality. Access to broadband Internet that’s both fair and sufficiently fast is an investment that our area has simply not seen. Most consumers in our region have no competition for their telecom patronage, as companies like Verizon have essentially abandoned us and taken their potential investment in fiber-optic infrastructure elsewhere.
The advocates of this repeal, as few as they may be, might instead tell us that increased profits will somehow fuel investment in broadband. That’s a tough pitch for consumers in our area to hear — and I consider it highly unlikely. Instead I see even more barriers hindering the growth that potential entrepreneurs could spur for the region.
Innovation moves at a different speed, and can take flight at a different scale, than it did decades ago when IBM drove the Kingston economy. Now it’s small entrepreneurs — hiring a few employees, and then a few more, and then more — that are driving us into the post-IBM era. These entrepreneurs rely on a free and open internet to bring disruptive technologies to fruition as they launch new products into the marketplace. But with the rollback of Net Neutrality, coupled with the lagging access to broadband, the possibility becomes narrower that our region might produce the next Lyft or Airbnb.
At a protest supporting Net Neutrality in Kingston on Dec. 7, I was encouraged to see a group of energetic young people making their voices heard. These high school students face the prospect of entering a very different workforce if these protections are repealed. Their fear was real, they have grown up with the Internet and it’s the lifeblood of their academic path. But their hope was real too, that we might be able to raise our voices and that our elected leaders might hear us.
So while we may have lost the battle, let’s win the war. Let’s join our voices with theirs, and call our elected leaders and our representatives in Congress, as well as our state and local representatives. Our elected leaders at every level of government have an important role to play: to make sure that we all have access to the same opportunities, and that no one can tip the scales against any of us. Freedom of movement, freedom of access and freedom of prosperity are the core of what we stand to lose, so let us not go quietly.
The writer is president of DragonSearch, which does digital marketing and consulting in Kingston and New York City.