The "fast lane" to internet civil war
Yesterday I announced that we are throttling access to the FCC’s IPs on Neocities to dialup modem speeds until they pay us for bandwidth.
More than a few people have criticized it for being a stunt. Yes, it was a stunt, that was the point. The stunt highlights just how nasty things are going to get if we let the FCC rip apart and throw away Net Neutrality.
This isn’t about attempting to profit from the FCC (Neocities is about helping people express themselves by bringing back the free web site and creative expression on the web, we have never been about profit). It is highly likely that I will never extract my $1000 ransom from the FCC to remove the block, Neocities simply isn’t useful enough to the FCC to force them to do it. But it highlights a concern of the Net Neutrality argument that really scares the hell out of me, and that nobody is really talking about yet.
The current concerns around Net Neutrality are monetary, as in “this is how the American ISP monopolies are going to extract ransoms using the lack of bandwidth competition and their ability to manipulate political organizations using money made by that monopoly (a practice in economics generally referred to as rent seeking).
It’s understandable that this is the focus of the debate right now, because money in politics is a huge, recurring problem in American politics, not helped at all by the Supreme Court declaring corporations as human beings that are subject to constitutional rights (that also conveniently never get thrown in jail when they violate other’s rights). The fact that ISP lobbyist Tom Wheeler was appointed by “reform-champion” Barack Obama highlights the core problem with the American democracy, which I hope we get a chance to finally solve in my lifetime: We get two choices, but they both work for the same monied interests. I won’t dwell on this, because it’s an age-old issue, and scholars like Lawrence Lessig do a much better job here than I ever will.
But let’s talk about Net Neutrality in a context other than just corporations making money. Neocities curtailed Net Neutrality to the FCC for political reasons. It won’t stop here. This is the beginning of Net Brutality.
I think Alexis Ohanian and Roy Singham really nailed it when they described Net Neutrality as an anti-discrimination policy for the net. It’s easy for anyone to throttle an IP block, because we’ve developed this technology to enable us to fight against spammers and botnets. And combined with geographical data, I could do some serious discrimination on the internet. For example, I could compile an IP block list of the most conservative places in the country, and prevent them from accessing my site. I could use demographics to do this in some very exotic ways. I could block districts that have high percentages of minorities, or the highest rates of heterosexual couples, or the youngest population, or the highest percentage of mental health problems. You name it, the data is out there. We have regional demographic statistics for pretty much every topic.
In the future, when we finally switch to online voting, corrupt governments could throttle access to the voting site to regions that vote for their political opponents. What if Comcast simply throttles access to voting for districts that support the opposition party? Has anybody considered this yet? It’s already possible to do this with off-the-shelf technology, today. I’m a MaxMind license, a geographical political breakdown and a web server away from making any of this happen.
In the end, I think the implications are far beyond money. The internet could break down into clans of warring tribes, a situation that would pit tightly coupled conglomerates of ISPs, media organizations and web corporations against each-other, blocking eachother’s internet routing in such a way that we start to have a divided, split-up Internet, and the notion that the entire thing is just one system falls apart. If America (the creator of the internet and the supposed champion of free expression) does this, it will set a strong precedent to the rest of the world that it is okay to do this.
This isn’t just about increasing profits for a couple ISP monopolies, this goes far beyond that. My question to the FCC, and Tom Wheeler: Are you prepared to condemn the future of humanity to an Internet civil war?