Internet fast lanes accelerate inequality

Inernet Fast Lane
Illustration by Victoria Courtney

The World Wide Web has been a public space for information and free speech since its launch in 1991. Since then, it’s been considered a human right by many. Now, that freedom is being challenged again.

Protesters took to their laptops for the Internet Slowdown movement Sept. 10 to protest the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s newest attack on net neutrality.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal, dubbed “Internet fast lanes,” allows discrimination within the previously equal playing ground for cable companies, websites and their customers. It states Internet service providers, such as AT&T, can charge sites extra to maintain a faster connection than others. This in turn forces the customer to pay more to access specific domains.

Wheeler would argue this is merely an extension of the free market into digital frontiers. But while competition may be healthy for the large cable companies, it discriminates against smaller domains and the average browser.

Considering the previous proposal dismissed by the FCC in May aimed to allow broadband companies to block certain sites, it’s evident discrimination is on the agenda.

President Barack Obama said in 2008 that he would “take a backseat to no one in [his] commitment to network neutrality” because “once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others, then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose.” But under his administration, the FCC has made no effort to uphold this. He seems to have in fact taken the backseat by remaining silent on the issue.

The argument that this is the natural progression of capitalism into the digital age reveals a slanted idea of the free market. If capitalism is truly meant to work, the goal is diversity and freedom. Capitalism operates on competition. But the FCC, as well as many people and companies in power, has shown healthy competition is for the few. There is no freedom of choice when every market is dominated by the same companies. No freedom of choice means no healthy capitalist market. In fact, no freedom screams oppression.

The fast lane would blatantly discriminate against independent domains and even larger sites such as Netflix. According to CNN, Netflix solicits one third of online data consumption during peak hours. Such a large player would be the first to have their prices raised, and without a fast connection to stream instant video, they would be forced to lose customers or increase their subscription price. Smaller sites would lose their browser traffic entirely if they couldn’t afford to join the list of high-speed domains.

“Once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others, then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose.” — President Barack Obama

Potentially, the Internet fast lane could mean the opposite of a freedom of choice. One could either have endlessly buffering YouTube videos, or pay for a subscription with fast connection privileges. The alternative of lesser-known video sites wouldn’t be an option. Spotify or Pandora could disappear, replaced by bigger names like iTunes. A service provider would have the freedom to give iPhones on their data plan a better Facebook connection than smartphones that weren’t. Facebook in turn could replace other less-trafficked social network sites, resulting in a monopoly of users.

Although these changes may not happen if the law were passed, the companies would certainly have the ability to make them.

This is a classist proposal. The Internet is a space for expression, knowledge, communication and assistance — not just business. People of all socioeconomic backgrounds participate across the web in free speech, educational activities, career searching, social networking, medical researching and independent business. The Internet is now a necessary tool to survive in today’s job market and social environment, and should be available to all without obstruction.

The creation of an Internet fast lane would create a hierarchy within the once-egalitarian web. Privileged sites could be accessed easier by privileged browsers. Discrimination on the web contributes to the larger economic inequality in our society. One percent of wealthiest citizens already own the majority of the power and money, and large corporations control what is supposed to be a market free to all.

As humanity progresses into the digital age, our concept of human rights must evolve with us. Although a two-tiered Internet doesn’t block the average American’s ability to access information or express themselves, it does hinder it. More importantly, the FCC’s proposed law creates a gateway to other, more serious restrictions that could endanger the people’s right to free speech and free market.

The goal of Internet fast lanes may only be to make more money, and it may merely sting the average consumer’s wallet, but it symbolizes a growing threat present outside the digital world: corporate power replacing the people’s choice.

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