It’s Thanksgiving evening 2017 and I’m idly browsing social media as the house that took me in this year winds down. Then, I see this:
I’m not going to link to it because I’ve done enough of giving clicks to fuckery. You can look it up if you’d like. But let’s just say, unfortunately, it wrapped me in. I was like,
which sucked, because I was having a really great, mostly unplugged day up until that point. But I couldn’t stay away because this article made something apparent to me that I hadn’t previously realized:
People are against net neutrality because they think the internet is a consumer good.
This explained everything. I thought everyone had heard the “internet access is a fundamental human right like water and heat” argument, but that was wrong. Many people see the internet like they see their cable service: a source of entertainment, news, and occasionally education. I had never actually realized that the public utility concept was a fringe idea, and not a commonly accepted principle.
Let’s Get This Straight
When it comes to net neutrality advocates, consumer choice is not the point because it is not the discussion.
Allow me to start with a story. I grew up in a household where a single mother of two brought in $18,000 one year. These are the kind of United States households that you hear about that make decisions like groceries vs. gas for the week. Naturally, a decision that came to the chopping block was internet access. “Well, we have cellphones, so perhaps we can do without internet for our computers” was a discussion that came about the year after I moved out.
I absolutely lost my shit.
I now find myself paying for my family’s cellphones and internet access. Let’s explore why.
Internet Is The Greatest Equalizer
A true net neutrality advocate sees the internet as a colossal equalizing force. It is a never-ending library and a publishing house of low barrier to entry. Net neutrality advocates do not see the internet like much of the world sees it – a tool for consumption of games, social media, etc. That’s what it primarily is presently, but we think that’s highly unlikely to be its function in 10 years. That’s what rattled me about the article that started this whole thing: it divided internet use into social media, video streaming, gaming, and email. Wait, what?
Hold on hold on hold on, screamed my brain. That’s not the benefit of the internet. The real benefit comes from someone browsing social media then hopping onto a website of high-quality journalism. They read a long-form article and learn a new word. They look up the word, and land on an online encyclopedia. They contribute to the encyclopedia and learn the name of an area of study previously unknown to them. They purchase a course online for that area of study. Then, they start a blog about it. Then… you get the idea. You have probably done this. And in a world where education is becoming more and more crucial, and more and more expensive, we need this effect more than ever.
Now let’s draw back to the story. My family’s situation was brought up to me because I have been loud about my conviction that internet access was a single, massively influencing factor in my ability to progress economically. I could never forget being 16, mom barely speaking English, and seeking the help I needed from the internet. Blogs helped me figure out how to apply for jobs, college, and more. YouTube taught me to do my makeup for interviews. Google searches taught me about safe sex. As much as I love public libraries, the hours and privacy required for this kind of information access is not available at a public library. I couldn’t let my brother attend high school in a household where internet access wasn’t a laptop-flip away, so I ended up with the bill.
But most low-income United States households don’t have a Christie. So, if the regulations that currently exist which prevent “tiered packages of internet service” from being available go away, lower income households will inevitably choose packages that limit the internet experience, which, unbeknownst to them, will effectively limit the amount of learning, exploration, and ultimately, economic opportunities available to that household.
This is not a statement intended to insult the poor. The poor are not dumb, the poor are, just like everyone else, actors with incomplete information making decisions at the margin.
I recently spoke to a room of 40 New York City city officials and I told them a story from when I was 14. I launched my first website, carolspianolessons dot com, to promote piano lessons to neighborhood kids because we were poor and I wanted to make money. My mom’s reaction really amuses me, saddens me, and inspires a lot of my work today. She didn’t say “oh my god, you just made a lead generation website on your own?” No, she said, “honey, you’re never going to make a good living teaching music.”
My mother is not stupid. My mother is tough as nails. My mother makes rational purchasing decisions. She just didn’t know.
Net Neutrality Is Protecting A Morphing Information Age
So why do we care?
It starts with this: there’s this troubling pattern that already exists where low-income households are disproportionate consumers vs. creators of online content. We’re worried about this because it’s no secret that the ability to produce using technology is becoming more and more crucial to being employable, productive, etc. Naturally, kids with richer parents are encouraged to create simply because parents know about the value of creating digital content, while low income kids’ families do not.
This is why there’s, give or take, 300,000 nonprofits currently trying to teach kids coding.
Where does net neutrality come in? Simple: this “harsh regulation” ensures that when I volunteer with nonprofit #293 or whatever to teach young people coding that every single one of them will either have a computer with internet access at home, or they will have unrestricted internet access somewhere else. I will not have to explain to a parent why the internet they pay for is not the internet they need for this class. You’ll know, if you’ve ever been in a similar situation, that that conversation will quickly turn into “sorry, we don’t have the right things to let our kid take this class.”
It’s a much more economically approachable problem to have more expensive, consistent internet service, that we can figure out other more reasonable technological limitations to (ex. speeds), than the hurdles we’d have to jump over if these strict regulations were lifted. Because, to draw it back to the original point, the internet is currently erroneously being seen as a form of information consumption. It is not. In the long run, it will come to be understood as an ultimate equalizer of information, transaction (blockchain, anyone?), etc.
But we have to get it through this stage first, and we must protect it to do so. And we’ll never get there if we deliberately prevent a large percentage of people from using it and learning it as a creation tool, which is the only way in which this medium continues to progress.
Tl,dr; (a term brought to you by unrestricted internet access)
The benefit to society (plus the lowering of costs associated with an educated population, too) highly outweigh the costs of this regulation, and people who don’t understand this are, to put it bluntly, too technologically illiterate to think long-term about the technology they’re using everyday.
Stop being illiterate.
Reconsidering your stance against net neutrality due to this post? Dope, it’d be cool if you left a comment. It’s nice to know one isn’t screaming into the void sometimes.
Take a sec to call your reps using this handy guide.
And oh, yes, all subscriptions on CalderaForms.com are 20% off for Black Friday. Unlike internet access, those are goods to be consumed.