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The Rights to ... Technology?

February 5, 2015

Yesterday may have been a typical January Wednesday for the vast majority of the United States, albeit with above-average dosage of snow, but for the people of the Internet, it was a day to go marked in history -- or more realistically, celebrated with a multitudes of blogs, videos, and animated GIFs. We don't have to look too far to see exactly what we deemed celebration-worthy. The Verge yesterday ran a post with the not-at-all-flashy title of "We Won the Internet Back". And surprisingly, in a sense, the title is literally true. But before we dive into exactly how this haphazard group of GIF-lovers, cat-photoshoppers and vloggers came to a massive ideological victory, we need to look at what exactly happened.

Internet providers is a "common carrier" in the United States, the same status as transport companies and phone lines. What doe that tell us about our relationship to technology?

The incident has a lot to do with the idea of net neutrality. I briefly touched on this in this past Monday's post, and CGPGrey does a stellar job of covering it in moderate detail, but let's recap briefly (if you know the spiel about the big NN, just skip down to the next paragraph):

The Internet, simply put, is just transfers of data -- a lot of data, yes, but still, at the most fundamental level, the Internet is a bunch of bits of information being shot through tiny pipes and wireless signals across the world. But most of this transfer happens on massive, large-capacity pipes of information, which are only too expensive and insanely complex for most people manage -- this is where large companies like Google and service providers like Verizon tread. To allow us to connect to these insanely complex pipes, we have Internet Service Provider companies, or ISPs, who give us access to the large pipes of information in much more manageable chunks. Our connection to the Internet therefore depends on these companies reliably and fairly connecting us to the information on the Internet. Net neutrality is a simple principle that removes from the ISPs like Comcast and T-Mobile their ability to unfairly regulate what passes through from the main pipes of information down to its customers (that would be us). Without net neutrality principles in place, for example, Comcast would be free to allow faster downloads from Netflix rather than YouTube if Netflix paid millions to Comcast while YouTube didn't. In other words, net neutrality insures that all information, regardless of its political content or source, passes through to everyone on the Internet equally -- nobody is allowed to remove access to any (legal) information on the Internet from its customers, and as such, it keeps the Internet open and free for everyone, and not just a commodity and tool for those who can afford to take advantage of it.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) yesterday made a major step forward in enforcing net neutrality by essentially declaring the Internet service providersa common carriers*. In essence, it's giving the same status to a fast connection to the Internet as telephone lines, electricity, and running water in our living spaces, by enforcing that Internet providers cannot regulate the flow of data through their infrastructure in a discriminatory way towards certain customers. Water companies can't make our water less sanitized just because we're using too much, and Internet companies now can't slow down our Internet just because we visit certain websites. And idealistically, that's a major shift in how we think about Internet and technology in general. It tells us that we, at least in the United States, consider the Internet and its wealth of resources just as integral to our lives and our society as running water and the power grid, and this moves broadband Internet access a bit away from the "privilege" status and a bit towards the "rights" status. It tells us: not only should we have equal opportunities and access on the web, but the web should also be accessible by and deserved for everyone.

As much as I love the Internet and the possibilities that it opens up for billions of people, even I'm not sure if I would consider the Internet something as vital to everyone as electricity.

I think this raises a really important discussion about how we think about technology's value to our daily lives, and most of all what our relationship to technology is. Do we "need" the Internet? Do we "deserve" the Internet? and is connection to the Internet, in a loose sense, a "right" of any paying member of a community? Along with shifting the speed standard for a "broadband" connection up a notch, the FCC has been making major efforts recently in telling us that its answers to these questions is a resounding "yes!". But why? As much as I love the Internet and the possibilities that it opens up for billions of people, even I'm not sure if I would consider the Internet something as vital to everyone as electricity. We can still expand once more on this question and ask whether or not everyone "needs" and "deserves" technology in general.

Technology brings incredible value to our lives, including countless many that we mostly take for granted. Banking from the safety of your home or your phone? That may be a norm in developed countries, but in developing nations, mobile banking has recently been a major part of much of the resurgence of their mid-tier economies. Microfinancing services like Kiva.org also allow people in developing nations to get the financial as well as informational support that they need to begin or improve their businesses, and Wikipedia has in the past garnered some attention for its efforts to reach out to those without a constant, fast Internet connection and deliver its incredible database by text messages. In other words, technology in the 21st century is so much more than the high-tech tool of wonder it used to be; rather, it's potentially life-changing and certainly delivers just as much value to a person's life as electricity.

So in this tech-immersed society that we live in today, is technology and Internet access still a privilege, or is it something everyone ought to have? Do we, in the developed countries like the U.S., have some moral obligation or an ethical pressure to allow others to be able to reap the values of the Internet?

As for my thoughts, I think the Internet thrives on the very idea that the lack of regulation brings on innovation and astounding creativity, so while I do absolutely agree with net neutrality and yesterday's FCC rulings, I'm also skeptical towards further regulations on the Internet by any external group. As with most things online, I think the community's power to innovate will be much more effective than any attempts at regulating Internet access, and hopefully, the future doesn't disappoint.


* You can read much more about it on The Verge.