Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984, sits quietly in one of the many chairs that have been lined up in front of a massive television screen in preparation for the morning’s Two-Minute Hate. He has chosen a seat in the middle of the room, not the front row or the back. This is a daily ritual for Winston. He sits among his coworkers, most of whom have been cowed by the seemingly omniscient Party into a docile servility, and watches as images of Emmanuel Goldstein, the most prominent enemy of the state, are displayed on the giant screen.
In less than a minute, this same crowd of meek, compliant workers has been whipped into a frenzy. They hiss and curse and scream at the television. Some knock chairs over or jump up and down. One young woman shrieks “Swine! Swine! Swine!” over and over again. This is a testament to the power of information, the ability to control what people see and hear, to shape how they think.
Eddie Vedder, the lead singer of Pearl Jam, stands on a stage, one Sunday night in August of 2007. The band decides to play a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2,” and when Vedder replaces the lyric “Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone” with “Hey, George Bush, leave this world alone,” something interesting happens.
The stage on which they were playing was run by AT&T, as was the webcast that shared their performance with an eager Internet. Somehow, the modified lyrics didn’t quite make it into the livestream. There was a very brief delay between recording and broadcast so that moderators could remove excessive profanity or nudity. Those same moderators took it upon themselves to censor Vedder’s political expression.
Let’s make a few things clear from the start. Eddie Vedder has the right to speak, but AT&T is not required to provide him with a platform. I’m sure AT&T had a contract with Lollapalooza, the festival hosting Pearl Jam, and I’m sure that contract specified the right to stream a webcast of the concert, subject to certain terms and conditions. That said, however, one can’t help but wonder if the moderators would have made the same decision if it had been Toby Keith proclaiming “America, love it or leave it!”
Corporations are not just morally-neutral machines that are programmed to maximize profit; they are political entities with a vested interest in determining which forms of political speech receive air time. They have money and resources that the average citizen lacks, entire teams of lobbyists to rewrite the law in their favour. And it works. A study by Professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page of Princeton University measured just how much influence the average American has on Congress and concluded that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon policy.” What’s more, “economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy.”
The playing field was never level to begin with, but Ajit Pai’s attempts to undermine Net Neutrality will only worsen matters. In 2015, the FCC reclassified Internet Service Providers as Title 2 Common Carriers, which, for those of you who don’t know, means that ISPs are not allowed to speed up, slow down or block any data that passes through their cables. They must treat all data equally so long as its source is legal.
What this means in practical terms is that you, the consumer, get to choose what data you access. If you want to get your news from CNN, you can do so, but if you prefer your local paper’s website, you can access that just as easily. Without Net Neutrality, Internet Service Providers will be able to slow-down or even block content from websites that don’t pay them a fee, and they can make these fees prohibitively expensive for small businesses. Your local newspaper might not be able to run a website anymore which, when coupled with the decline of print media, might make local news a thing of past.
Imagine it for a moment: all of your news coming from one of three or four multinational media empires. Do you prefer Fox News’s right-wing bluster, CNN’s tepid centrism or MSNBC’s sad attempt at leftist commentary? Because those will be your only options. No matter what you choose, all of your media will have a pro-corporate slant. I can’t blame you if you’re starting to feel like Winston from 1984.
Noam Chomsky, one of the most relevant media critics of our time, once remarked that the best way to control public opinion is to set very narrow limits on public discourse but to allow lively debate within those limits. If our news is forced through the bottleneck of a handful of media giants — if journalism becomes an endeavour restricted to those who are willing to work within the narrative framework of those media giants — then Professor Chomsky’s vision of limited discourse is precisely what will happen.
ISPs have every incentive to restrict access to content that does not align with their political goals. This has already happened. Telus, one of Canada’s largest ISPs that also happens to claim nearly one-third of Canadian wireless subscribers, once blocked access to a pro-union website after finding itself in the middle of a labour dispute.
Verizon, a US telecommunications giant, opted to deny its customers access to text messages from the abortion advocacy group Naral Pro-Choice America. To claim that corporations are politically neutral — that they are concerned with profit and nothing else — is simply ludicrous. Corporations have an agenda, and it is an agenda that focuses specifically on the preservation of a social hierarchy.
One need only look at Twitter’s stubborn refusal to remove white supremacists from its platform for proof of this. Each and every day, these dregs of the human gene pool conduct a targeted harassment campaign against various minority groups, most notably women of colour. Twitter’s decision to remove the blue verification checkmark from many of its more virulent users proves that the company knows how to identify these troublemakers, and yet it still refuses to oust them from the platform.
It behooves us to ask why.
Why does Twitter side with the Nazis and not with their victims? Why is Facebook more concerned with protecting white men than it is with protecting black children? Why does Verizon care if its customers want to receive text messages about reproductive health? If corporations were politically neutral — as so many people believe — they wouldn’t take a stance on these issues.
A politically-neutral wireless carrier would treat content from Naral Pro-Choice America no differently than content from the American Life League. A politically-neutral wireless carrier would allow its customers to choose what content they want to consume without comment.
Corporations reflect the political interests of their upper management. Those managers are primarily white men, and white men have a specific political agenda. They oppose reproductive rights because that gives them control over women’s bodies; they oppose unions because that gives them control over their workforce. The primary interest of those who have climbed the corporate ladder — regardless of whether or not they happen to be white men — is in preserving their power.
That is the sole basis of this attack on Net Neutrality.
It is a power-grab and nothing more.
It is an attempt to make corporations, which function as microcosms of a totalitarian state, into the gatekeepers of information. The gatekeepers of truth itself.
Consider the gains we have made in the last few years: the plethora of women who have found the courage to share their stories and seek justice against men who have violated their bodies, the unification of people of colour against wanton police brutality, the growing anti-capitalist sentiment. All of these things have been facilitated, at least in part, by a free and open Internet.
The Internet is a tool to organize, to mobilize and to galvanize. The Internet untied those of us who were outcasts in our communities: those of us who were queer, who were neurodivergent, who were different. Those of us who didn’t fit in. It showed us that we were not alone, that we were not aberrations or freaks. There were others like us, hiding in their communities, afraid to let their true selves shine.
I almost killed myself before I learned that my preference for being awake during the night hours was not a character flaw but a genetic predisposition. I would never have learned that without the Internet.
Now consider what might happen if we allow rich white men, who just happen to display many of the qualities that we associate with psychopathy, to control the information we access. Will we have access to media that challenges the patriarchal, white-supremacist and pro-corporate narratives that dominate our culture?
A move against Net Neutrality is a move toward totalitarianism.
Rich Penney is a science-fiction author and futurist. You can check out his books here.