I opened my Firefox browser a few days ago and got a message warning me that “Without Net Neutrality, big companies could censor people and perspectives online.”
Does anyone have an idea why this might give us pause—why warnings about a corporation dictating what people can say might come off a bit wrong, especially when it comes from Firefox and its parent company Mozilla?
If not, let me refresh your memory: Mozilla is the company that, all the way back in the misty past of 2014, fired its co-founder and CEO Brendan Eich when it was revealed that he had made a small donation to a campaign to put gay marriage on the ballot in California. So he was hounded out of his job because “love wins,” or something. But by all means, Mozilla is now very concerned that corporations might try to dictate what people can think.
Mozilla firing Brendan Eich was not “censorship.” Only government can impose censorship, because only government can use force to impose systematic controls on speech. Freedom of speech means that you have a right to say whatever you want, but you also have to face social repercussions from other people, who have a right to decide they no longer want to be friends with or do business with you—even if they do so unjustly. So Mozilla’s decision to fire Eich may have been stupid and intolerant, and it might reveal the gap between the conformist code of Silicon Valley and the values of the rest of the nation, but it isn’t “censorship.”
It’s also not censorship when Twitter cancels the accounts of trolls or when Facebook attempts to keep “fake new” out of your feed. You may notice that the very same people who complain that “big companies could censor people” think all of this is perfectly okay, because their favored restrictions are “reasonable” and only target “bigots.” We might find such claims doubtful, but most of us would merely draw the line at a different point, making different decisions about who we want to talk to and do business with. Even the most thick-skinned are occasionally driven to use the “block” function on Twitter.
Yet Mozilla (and many others) are building their case for net neutrality around the fear that other, bad corporations are going to impose “censorship” that is so much worse the benevolent speech patrols of the corporations they like. On Mozilla’s landing page, that’s the obsession of just about every anonymous quote from a “Concerned Internet Citizen.” Like so:
And so on.
Aside from being hypocritical and insufferably self-righteous, these claims are also irrelevant to the actual issue of net neutrality. The Federal Communications Commission’s attempt to turn Internet service providers into regulated utilities, which the Trump administration has just reversed, was never about stopping them from controlling content. It’s actually about money. It’s about who pays for all of that bandwidth we’re using. To be more specific, it’s about trying to make certain unpopular companies (like Comcast) pay for it, so that other, more popular companies (like Netflix) don’t have to.
The signature case cited as the reason we need net neutrality was the accusation that several big service providers were slowing down people’s Netflix downloads. And you don’t mess with the Netflix download speeds of this nation’s cultural elite.
But if they did this, the ISPs didn’t do it to show their disapproval of “House of Cards.” The real issue was a dispute between Netflix’s service provider, Cogent, and bigger ISPs like Comcast and Verizon, whom Cogent accused of “refus[ing] to upgrade the equipment that handles ISP traffic across the country.” Translation: everyone suddenly wanting to download all their television viewing off the Internet means the ISPs need to spend a lot of money on upgrades, and the big ISPs were asking Cogent and Netflix to foot part of the bill. This is a dispute over who should bear the cost of the Web’s considerable infrastructure, and net neutrality was the government coming in to put a thumb on the scales and dictate the winners and losers.
After all, if Netflix loses this commercial dispute, it might have to charge more to its customers, who might need to spend a little more money on their entertainment. And that can’t be tolerated, because people have spent the past two decades learning to feel entitled to get all of their entertainment and information without paying for anything ever. In that regard, the only person who seems really honest about the motivations for net neutrality is this guy:
— Atlas (@theanonatanon) July 13, 2017
If I seem a little impatient with this, it’s partly because I live in a rural location where super-high-speed broadband just isn’t available. I only recently got to the point where I have a connection fast enough to stream video, but I still don’t do it because video sucks up so much data that it quickly blows past my download limits. I accept this as part of the cost of living in the sticks, which is counterbalanced by the many other costs I avoid by not living in the big city. Somehow I manage to survive without the hot new streaming television shows everyone is talking about.
This also means that I have been conditioned to accept that data downloads require a vast and expensive infrastructure and that somebody has to pay for it. Ultimately that someone is me, the consumer, and I know I don’t have a right to demand that somebody else bear that cost for me. If other people are going to make that demand, the should have the honesty not to cover it up with a lot of blatantly hypocritical posturing about freedom of speech and the First Amendment.
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