If you visit a site like Tumblr or scroll through some WordPress blogs, you notice that a lot of people at the other end of your internet connection don’t fit your notion of normal. Members of minority ethnic groups, people with disabilities, and others who don’t fit into mainstream media and feel like their stories are underrepresented in institutional scholarship have found a free platform on internet. Their ability to use the internet brings them to tell stories that might otherwise never be heard.
Communications theorists call the idea that the internet gives all of its users equal voice “net neutrality”.
But the government is now threatening this utopia of equality with differentiated rates, or discounts on internet access for companies like Google and Amazon who use massive servers — a large portion of the internet. In other words, their lower costs will pay for faster access.
People are scared that the big guys are going to put the little guys out.
Nick Mederos, a junior, produces a YouTube game-play channel with a few friends. YouTube has started sending emails warning him that differentiated rates may change policies in the future.
“I’m not so much concerned about the larger companies,” says Mederos, “but I’m interested to see how the independent websites handle it.”
A few concerned citizens, many students like Mederos, attempt to talk the Federal Communications Commission or FCC into banning differential rates. They fear that a lower rate for a faster connection might give larger and established companies a competitive edge over smaller organizations and start-ups.
However, faster internet might help America’s tech giants move forward more quickly.
“Challenged by differential pricing, edge providers such as Google, Amazon and Netflix could find themselves obliged to experiment with new genres of digital content, creating employment opportunities for a new generation of content providers,” writes Richard John, a professor of history and journalism at Columbia University, writes in an editorial in Al-Jazeera America.
What John calls common carriage, or the singular internet speed available now to all Americans, can act to equalize all of the internet’s users. But is it worth potentially slowing down the leaders?
Some say yes.
“It could have a detrimental affect on college students because it will probably depend on what the institution can pay,” says Fatima Shaik, professor of communications.
“It’s worse than censorship,” says Ron Stefanovsky, also a junior. “They’re calling all the shots.”
Shaik agrees. “If we’re interested in the democratization of our country, then we have to try to create as level a playing field as possible.”
Stefanovsky also fears that preferential pricing might be not just the end of net neutrality, but also the end of free sharing online.
“They’ll have the right to block anything and everything for anti-piracy measures,” he says.
Differentiated rates are best for large corporations. These rates allowed telephone service to expand in the 1880s. Businesspeople wanted the faster rates so they would pay more, while everyday people could pay less for slower service.
Eventually, as the demand for faster service grew, the companies that provided phone service invented ways to make this faster service more accessible.
“It will hurt small business, hurt competition, and make it very difficult for someone who’s just starting out,” said Shaik.
The attempt to control access rates comes on the heels of revelations about the unpopular NSA. The government has been able to record its citizens search engine activity.
“What they’re able to do now,” said Stefanovsky, “it’s Orwellian.”