The clarion call heard across cyberspace these past few days has been as urgent in its tone as it has been dramatic in its delivery: "Save the Internet!" And for once, it's nearly impossible for anyone to exaggerate the grave danger that threatens to plunge our modern networked world into the disconnected dark ages.
Well, just what is at stake? If the United States Federal Communications Commission is not stopped from allowing Big Companies to subjugate the internet into slow and fast lanes, then the internet will cease being the singularly most empowering medium ever invented. The web that we know today will die, and some day in the not-too-distant-future, this past decade will be remembered as the golden age of a medium that became as culturally barren and socio-politically manipulative as the other media they have ruthlessly exploited. It's almost unthinkable that a government bureaucracy, no matter how dysfunctional or disconnected from its citizens, could be so brazen as to try covertly handing over the reins of the internet to the same big monopolies and duopolies that provide the only avenue of access for most Americans. But this frightening moment and the insidious cloak of shadows through which the FCC’s arcane process operates did not simply materialize out of thin air; it has been in the works for years. How exactly did things get to be so bad, and what can we as individuals do about it?
In the business of delivering consulting services to clients, we project management professionals routinely have to anticipate and mitigate risk while concurrently managing change to improve efficiencies to thwart future potentially unknown risks. By failing to effectively manage their engagement efforts, supporters of net neutrality are now faced with strategic catastrophe. This is because the underlying theater of engagement upon which net neutrality proponents and their foes, telecommunications industry, now wage battle has been masterfully rigged by the Big Internet Service Providers over the past decade:
In the age of radical connectivity, "Big" is failing. Big Companies are constantly being undermined, misdirected, and outmaneuvered by smaller, scrappier, more agile startups. The very existence of the digital economy is a testament to the triumph of innovation and would only have been possible through open, unfettered, egalitarian access to the internet by individuals. But Big was never going to capitulate to its defeat without waging a war. Just weeks after university studies have confirmed America has become an oligarchy ruled by the wealthy, the Big Internet Service Providers – already the most reviled and hated companies in the lives of ordinary Americans – cashed in on years of lobbying and forced former industry insider FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to begin pushing through a plan that would allow them to start charging "content providers" (basically, anyone who communicates online) for timely access to customers over the so-called "last mile." The implications of what this would do to consumers is the antithesis of the very real Open Internet that the FCC is ostensibly bound to protect. The future that is in store for all of us is best exemplified by this widely distributed chart.
The dystopian future that the Big ISPs and FCC are conspiring to actualize is one where individuals cannot challenge Big institutions, organizations, and companies. It's a future where a college kid would never have been able to create the world's most successful social network from his dorm room. It's a world where three friends could never have fulfilled their dream of building the world's most compelling user-generated content platform, which they hatched over a dinner party. It's a reality where independent tradesfolk and artisans could never challenge established retail markets, innovative entrepreneurs could never coordinate with individual donors to bring their disruptive ideas to life, and even different-minded thinkers would have never been able to invent personal computers. Most importantly, it's a universe where Big prevails at all costs and the marketplace of ideas withers away and perishes, with stark implications for anyone who ever wants to challenge establishment institutions: from businesses to bureaucrats, religions to rulers. And the only way they could hope to get away with it is if the very citizens and consumers they seek to commoditize in this conquest simply cannot comprehend because they have been convincingly confused.
So, how does our story end? Today, May 15th, the latest chapter in this unfolding drama has been written with the FCC’s vote to advance its “internet with fast lane” rules. But this isn't the end of the debate, it's merely the beginning of what has been Big's fight to slow radical connectivity in an effort to maintain relevance in an increasingly fragmented world. This time the battle pits internet companies and activists against ISPs and lobbyists for the immediate fate of the internet. And while there are some very creative web campaigns to heighten awareness and direct outrage to prevent a loss for net neutrality this week, the effort to ‘Save the Internet’ continues. In fact, one of Echo & Co.'s clients, Free Press, has been at the forefront of engaging the public on this issue and we are proud to support them.
If history has taught us anything about the threats to individual freedoms online, it's that Big institutions are ruthlessly fighting for survival against a tide of change that has upended the models and frameworks upon which they function and rely. Against these odds, all of us must—as the pioneers of the digital frontier—strive to continue to organize and engage our increasingly detached government and policymakers and the greatest instrument at our disposal is precisely what Big institutions fear the most: you as individuals.
"Net Neutrality" image by Camilo Sanchez in the Public Domain.