On Tuesday a DC circuit court of appeals dealt what many are calling a death blow to net neutrality, the principle that all content providers should be treated equally. To understand this ruling and its potential effects on the future of the internet, Brooke talks with Siva Vaidhyanathan, chair of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of The Googlization of Everything (and why we should worry).
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, a DC district court dealt what is likely a mortal blow to network neutrality. I know, I know. How many times I got to tell you, this matters. Net neutrality is the idea that every Internet user should have the same quality of service, whether it's you or Google or Netflix. The court went against the FCC, which sought to ensure that companies like Comcast and Verizon would not force certain websites to pay for better service or block certain websites because they were competitors.
But because, back in 2002, the FCC had classified Internet service providers as information services and not common carriers, it lost its case this week. Now ISPs can do whatever they want and charge whatever they want. Netflix is probably going to have to pay more, so you will too.
[PETER AND THE WOLF THEME/ UP & UNDER]
In a minute, we’ll consider the implications of that decision with Siva Vaidhyanathan.
But first, you may be wondering why you're hearing Peter and the Wolf. It’s because this show has been covering the net neutrality battle long before most people cared – actually, most people still don't, but they should. Anyway, sometimes the news was hard to explain, like back in 2010, when the Internet world compromised with itself. It decided that ISPs would treat all websites the same, if they were accessed from home computers, but they wouldn't get the same treatment, at the same price, anyway, when accessed on a cell phone. It was a big deal, but complicated. So I tried something new. Here’s a clip from that piece.
[8/10/13 OTM CLIP]:
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the symphonic saga, Peter and the Wolf, Sergei Prokofiev assigned themes to Peter, the bird, the duck, the cat, Grandfather and the wolf. But assigning the bad guy theme in our story is tricky. Everybody thinks they're the good guy. So in the interest of fairness, we're not assigning the wolf’s theme. In our rendering, the net neutrality advocate, Siva Vaidhyanathan, who teaches media studies at the University of Virginia, is the bird.
[BIRD THEME UP & UNDER]:
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: If we decide that the only level playing field will be that wire coming out of the wall into our personal computer, we might find that we've relegated all the freedom in the world to the eight-track tape deck over the next 20 years, and that could be a terrible mistake.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHING] Do you remember that?
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: I do, I do. That was – that was a fun moment, yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] And it was back then, after a compromise, so-called, that ISPs would treat all services equally, if you were using our computer at home, but they could charge various rates if you were accessing the Internet from your phone.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: And it’s really not so much about charging rates to you and me, the users, it’s more about charging extortion rates or payola to the providers of the content. That's kind of the information ecosystem we’re used to for the past 200 years. We had a brief moment, the past 20 years, when it seemed like we might actually create a level playing field where someone's expressions and ideas could win the day over a tremendous amount of capital but, in the absence of network neutrality, we’re gonna be reverting back to that system in which there really are going to be very few avenues for insurgents, and incumbents will dominate just about every outlet for expression.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think it's worth noting, for anyone who may have missed it, that they haven't had network neutrality on their iPhones and on their Androids since 2010. Have they experienced a different kind of service that an ordinary user might notice?
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Yeah, in the sense that Apple has, in a number of cases, denied access to certain companies providing apps on their phone. And while Apple has not wanted to raise the concerns of consumer advocates and civil libertarians by blocking access through the browser to certain services, the fact that Apple blocked a Google Voice app for a while is a clear indication that the phone is a different game. Anything you download from iTunes is favored by your iPhone, as opposed to any content you download otherwise. In fact, downloading a video file into your iPad from any service but iTunes is very difficult and cumbersome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Does that have First Amendment implications? Not really. Does it have competition implications? Most definitely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yes, and that was something that the judges themselves observed, that, for example, a broadband provider like Comcast might limit its subscribers’ ability to access the New York Times website, if it wanted to spike traffic to its own news website. It might degrade the quality of the connection to a search website, like Bing, if a competitor like Google paid for prioritized access. Now, in this case, we’re just talking about the wire to the wall.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But if most of us are mobile, and this has been going on anyway –
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Here – I’m gonna say something sort of blasphemous.
Among net neutrality advocates - as you know, I am one –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: - I'm not sure how much it matters, in the long run. I really see the last 20 years of what we call the Internet, this sort of joyous radical anarchistic information system, as a historical blip, as a short period of time between two much longer periods of time, one yet to come, through which oligarchy rules.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, that’s really cheerful.
So what you're basically saying is back to unfair business as usual.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: I look at the real decision makers in our information ecosystem, and I see four big companies today. I see Apple, I see Microsoft, I see Facebook and I see Google. And I say, what do those companies want. They aren't necessarily in the business of mastering and monitoring and monetizing what comes over your desktop computer, or even your mobile phone. They want to run the operating systems of your life. They see a time, in the not-too-distant future, where so many different articles in our lives will have data flow through them, and they want to be able to monitor and monetize that data flow. They want to be the operating systems of our cars, of our refrigerators, of our eyeglasses, of our clothes. It’s all about the data flow. Those companies I just mentioned have, to greater or lesser degrees - Google especially - argued for network neutrality, when the game was all about that wire comin’ out of your wall.
When the game is no longer played on that field, and there’s no reason to think it will be very much longer, then those companies don't have an interest in network neutrality; in fact, they have the opposite interest. They have an interest in controlling the flow, to the best of their ability, to keep you in-house, using their services, so that they can monitor all that data. So when I look at the likely outcomes over the next 10 year, especially in the next 20 years, I see nothing that looks like what we have traditionally called the Internet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It just seems weird, Siva, hearing you say that the time of competition and equality is over now, Google will just control literally our view of the world through our Google glasses.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Oh, I can go farther than that. I don't even think we had that much radical freedom back in the day [LAUGHS] not so long ago, for a couple of reasons. Early on in our web experience, like around 1999, 2000, we started gathering our attention through Google, and it really spiked around 2003, 2004, to the point where Google governs our web experience, largely, not exclusively and certainly not all the way around the world, but for the most part what Google thinks is important becomes what we think is important.
Now, Google never did that with a heavy hand, but it did it with enough subtlety that Google was able to convince us that this was the natural way. The fact is, if we want things that markets don't provide easily, if we care about network neutrality and the beautiful results that we've had from it, all this creativity, this openness, this free speech, if we want all that, we’re not wise to settle for traditional cable broadband as the battlefield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I honestly can't tell how you feel about this.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you resigned?
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: I'm not optimistic that the people of the United States of America will rise up for network neutrality in any form. I am not willing to resign though because, you know, in a democratic republic, or at least some semblance of one, we have a responsibility to be open and straightforward about what could be and keep fighting for it. Let's just have a much more mature and realistic discussion about it, rather than fluctuating between utopianism and deep cynicism.
We really need to have comprehensive discussion in this country over the regulatory framework that will guide our use of data over the next few decades, because it's not about the Internet. The Internet is just a word we use to describe a complex set of tools and platforms and this interconnection of networks. It’s a word that’s actually quite distracting.
The thing we should be talking about is the ways in which data affect our lives and who gets to control the data, who gets to monitor, monetize it. And this combines all these big different areas of thought that are subjects of your show, things like copyright, things like privacy, things like government surveillance, things like freedom of speech, and network neutrality, all become part of a general framework where we identify the values we’re after in a democratic republic and we try to guide companies and limit companies in what they do, so that we can benefit from great innovation and, at the same time, not suffer the consequences of extravagance from these companies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m putting you in a grant proposal! [LAUGHS]
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: [LAUGHS]
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Siva, thank you so much.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Oh, it’s my pleasure, Brooke, thanks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Siva Vaidhyanathan is the chair of the Media Studies Department at the University of Virginia.