The Democratic Web Has Always Been An Illusion
2 min read

The Democratic Web Has Always Been An Illusion

In a pro-“net neutrality” piece in the Times, Adam Cohen invokes the old saw about freedom of press belonging only to those who own one — he declares that the Web is the most democratic medium ever — but it’s really an illusion.

The problem with the democratic web ideal is that no one really owns their own press — not me, not the rest of the blogosphere, not Yahoo, not Google.

Why? Because none of us owns our own internet access.

If we really owned our own presses online, you wouldn’t have the president of the Christian Coalition asking, “What if a cable company with a pro-choice board of directors decides that it doesn’t like a pro-life organization using its high-speed network to encourage pro-life activities?”

Whatever democracy there is on the web exists because the ISPs allow it. Now that the ISPs want to take it away, everyone cries out in horror, running to congress to legislate our right to a democratic web.

Let me be clear — I’m a proponent of net neutrality, from the perspective of the public good — but even if the Web is a public good that should provide unfettered access, that doesn’t resolve the issue of who should pay for bandwidth, which is not an unlimited resource.

I pay for electricity, so I should be able to use as much as I want for whatever I want, right? But there’s a reason why I can’t plug a large industrial machine into my wall socket — the infrastructure can’t handle it.

So much for voltage neutrality.

When I tried to attach my flame thrower to my natual gas line, no luck. So much for flammables neutrality.

If I had a swimming pool, I’d probably want to fill it in 3 minutes, but my local water and sewage authority wouldn’t let that fly, so there goes aqua neutrality.

The element of the net neutrality argument that I’ve always found specious is that the ISPs have no “right” to tier the internet and shut out the little guy.

Of course they have the right — they own the “pipes”!

Now, we as a society may decide that, like the air waves, no one should have the right to control internet access, but the ISPs are not “evil” because they want to make more money off of the the access routes that they currently own. And the comparison to the public air waves is also specious, because the airwaves exist for free — it costs nothing to maintain them.

The advent of broadband and the spiraling increase in bandwidth usage have lifted the veil on the web’s underlying undemocratic structure — it is, and always has been, about paying for access.

If we’re going to make the web democratic, so that everyone can have unlimited internet access regardless of usage, then someone’s going to have to subsidize it.

If we want to turn internet access into a regulated utility, then let’s call it that — I dislike obfuscatory euphemisms like “net neutrality” — even for causes that I support.