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Net Neutrality: Why it matters?

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“Freedom of connection with any application to any party is the fundamental social basis of the internet. And now, is the basis of the society built on the internet.” – Tim Berners-Lee

According to Sujay Kulshrestha, “[o]ne way in which to judge a society’s status is by the basic freedoms that its citizens enjoy.” In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the freedom of speech, of worship, of want, and of fear as the four freedoms everyone in the world should enjoy. These four freedoms were adapted in 1945 as the pillars of the UN Charter, and later, in 1945, as the foundational principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Articles 1 and 2 of the UDHR stipulates that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and that human rights are to be enjoyed “without distinction of any kind such as race, colour or sex.” However, in order for human beings to be able to exercise their freedoms and protect their dignity they must be able to communicate what they want and what they fear. Consequently, freedom of speech and expression are a critical component of liberty, equality and dignity. Nonetheless, the exercise of these freedoms becomes challenging, especially in the decision-making process, when communication central to liberty, equality and dignity is used to destroy these values.

Many scholars have concluded that mass-media has effectively shaped national and transnational identities, and that concepts of identity are communicated through the use of media such as television, radio and the press, and more recently, the Internet (Roth, 2009). However, recent developments in media technology have turned the Internet into one of the most important, if not the main, communication outlet and platform not only in US but around the globe. The goal of many companies today is to completely digitalize the way people obtain their critical information. In response to that, now more and more people turn to the Internet as their first choice of information when any type of critical information is needed. Moreover, they tend to trust as true and reliable whatever information comes first. Hence the dangers of eliminating net neutrality. Without net neutrality, whoever pays the highest amount of money will also the fastest speed, and will therefore reach, and consequently influence, a greater and a more diverse audience. Belli and Bergen (2013) explain,

“On the one hand, network neutrality is instrumental to enable any Internet user to offer and enjoy online content, applications and services through any Internet-connected device of their choice, without having to conclude agreements with each Internet Service Provider (“ISP”) of each intended recipient, and all ISPs in between. On the other hand, net neutrality ensures that Internet-users’ choices for certain online content, applications, services and devices are not unduly influenced by discriminatory delivery of Internet traffic. As such, net neutrality enables self-determination and facilitates the openness of the Internet, by deflating market and institutional barriers to enter into the ‘free market of ideas’ and to participate on equal footing in economic, social and political activities” (para.7).

In addition, as it happens with media conglomeration, the ultimate goal of eliminating net neutrality is not to provide more and better choices to consumers, but to better manage resources, lower costs, and maximize profits (Campbell, et al., 2011). Ben Scott, Policy Director of Free Press, explains,

“Network Neutrality will not harm ISP employment. ISPs have for years been earning higher revenues and simultaneously slashing jobs. Since 1996, AT&T, Qwest and Verizon have collectively seen a 32 percent increase in revenues while jobs have dropped 25 percent. In short, the ISPs pro-consolidation era pattern of destroying good jobs while reaping higher profits will likely continue with or without the existence of Network Neutrality rules.” (January 14, 2010)

At the beginning of the 21st century, Netanel (2000) predicted that if media conglomeration continued as it was, “those seeking to reach a mass audience [in the future] will need to do so through conglomerate-controlled outlets” (p.1889). In short;

Ultimately, like in the offline world, it is the large commercial players who succeed in capturing the lion’s share of audience attention. Only they have the financial and organizational resources to advertise their products, exploit product and corporate partner synergies, purchase first position in search engine search results and prominent placement of their icons on portal desktops, populate the Internet with links to their sites, and produce star-studded, attention-grabbing content. (p.1890-1891).

In this sense, although he favored the idea of having a deregulated Internet world, he also recognized the importance of the role that commercial players play in the processes of mass media and mass communications. This deregulated world, instead of promoting a more democratic world with a transparent and accountable information flow, would in turn promote a hegemonized society where the ideas and messages promoted will be provided only by the ones in power. For example, Sean Howard, the CEO of Hornet (a gay social network), and Peter Ian Cummings, who published XY magazine from 1996-2007, explain what would happen to queer-focused businesses with the elimination of net neutrality:

“…history shows that given such power, some corporations and governments will inevitably use it to censor content they dislike.

In our experience in many countries across several decades, gay and “immoral” content is often the first to fall. There are many examples: Facebook treats gay content unequally right now, South Korean ISPs routinely ban gay content, and even the UK’s British Telecom blocked gay social networks in the early 1990s, putting several of them out of business.”

Shoemaker (2006) explains that “all humans monitor the world around them in order to find out what occurrences […] are important” (p.3). However, the power processes of determining what is or is not of interest may be the product of how people have been conditioned by a biological and a cultural evolution that responds to neoliberal practices. Additionally, the increased use of the Internet, as well as the development of a system of global mass communications, produces an exchange of information and ideas dominated by only a few languages, which ultimately “threatens the survival of particular languages and cultures” (Craufurd Smith, 2007, p.25). The elimination of net neutrality would therefore have the ultimate effect of a de facto prior restraint or censorship of the ideas and messages of individuals and smaller groups of Internet users, which are usually minority groups with less access to resources and means to pay for speed, that do not fit the ideas and messages of those in control. Consequently, minority groups’ ideas, messages, and causes will be left with less public traction and audience attention. And as Campbell, et al., (2011) explain, “a society which only a few voices are telling us the stories about what’s important, what our values should be, and how we should behave is hardly a healthy democracy” (p.22). In short,

[T]he First Amendment protects not only the […] media’s free speech rights but also the rights of all of us to speak out. Mounting concerns over who can afford access to the media go to the heart of free expression. As we struggle to determine the future of [mass media and mass communications] and to broaden the democratic spirit underlying media technology, we need to take part in spirited debates about media ownership and control, [and] about the differences between commercial speech and free expression. As citizens, we must pay attention to who is included and excluded from opportunities not only to buy products but also to voice their views and thereby shape our nation’s cultural and political landscape. (Campbell, et al., 2011, p.389)

Freedom speech also includes the right to listen to what others have to say; even when we might not like it or agree with it. In US democratic society, where the freedom of speech it’s guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, media – whether print, radio, or the Internet – plays a particularly important role (Campbell, et al., 2011). US have continually utilized media to attempt to appropriate the economic decision-making power regarding world order issues from international governance. Moreover, major corporate-driven media outlets have taken advantage of globalization and society’s reliance on media-based information to employ doublespeak and brainwash society by shaping the views and perspectives of individuals. This power structure endangers democracy by facilitating and perpetuating a scenario of perpetual dominance, exploitation, and deprivation of the “other,” which also violates people’s right to human dignity. Members of the LGBT community have for too long being considered as the “other.” And the elimination of net neutrality would assure that this doesn’t change. By eliminating positive, accurate, and effective information about the LGBT community, or by impeding that positive, accurate, and effective information about the LGBT community reaches the community at large, the elimination of Net Neutrality would aid to exponentially increase LGBT stereotypes and to therefore perpetuate them as an eternal “other.” Consequently, and as Campbell, et al., (2011) stresses, because of the importance of the media in the shaping and sharing of power, in order to make a difference, and be able to fully exercise our rights and freedoms, now more than ever its critical to be careful “about which media we consume, what messages we draw from those media, and how those messages are affecting our actions, the quality of our lives, and the health of our democracy” (p.22).

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