By Thor Benson


To many Americans, the net neutrality controversy seems like a guillotine hovering over a fiber optic cable. They’re watching as the strands of the rope unwind, jeopardizing the very thing they love — an open and accessible Internet.

Net neutrality is inextricably tied to Internet company monopolies and mergers. The larger an Internet company is and the more online real estate it controls, the more it can make its own rules, drive out the possibility of competition and flex its muscle in Washington. Companies like Comcast operate in many places where they are the only option for getting Internet service, and they also shell out millions of dollars a year in political donations to maintain influence on policy decisions.

There are only 12 major Internet service providers in the United States, and only a handful of them furnish the majority of online service. Many Americans fear the ramifications of the proposed Time Warner-Comcast merger, which would create one company that controls more than 40 percent of the high-speed Internet service market in the U.S., and the majority of Americans are opposed to the deal. That being said, telecommunications analyst Craig Moffett, of the research firm Moffett Nathanson, told The Washington Post on Sept. 3 that there is an 80 percent chance the merger will go through.

Last week, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said that “meaningful competition for high-speed wired broadband is lacking and Americans need more competitive choices for faster and better Internet connections.” The FCC is the agency that will approve or reject the Time Warner-Comcast merger, and it is emblematic of exactly what Wheeler is now railing against.

The Internet’s future is in the FCC’s hands in terms of the Time Warner-Comcast deal and the pending decision on net neutrality. Fight for the Future, as well as such like-minded organizations as Demand Progress and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are approaching the battle with a two-tiered approach. They have organized a protest called Internet Slowdown Day on Wednesday, when companies such as Netflix, Reddit, Upworthy, Kickstarter and many others will display loading signs on their pages to simulate what the Internet would be like if net neutrality is not maintained. Fight for the Future campaign manager Evan Greer told Truthdig that the disassembling of net neutrality benefits only the major Internet providers, which will be able to charge more for premium services.

The other fight these groups are leading is to reclassify the Internet as a public utility, like water or electricity. “It’s just recognizing that the Internet is something people use and rely on every day as a communication network. We rely on it the same way we wake up in the morning and expect our water and electricity to work,” Greer explained. Reclassifying would eliminate “the barrier for creating a new Internet service provider if the FCC were to protect the Internet as a public utility,” she said.

“Chattanooga, Tenn., has municipal Wi-Fi that’s 100 times faster than the rest of the country,” Greer noted. She believes that if demonstrations like Internet Slowdown Day help maintain net neutrality and the Internet can be reclassified as a utility, the monopolies will crumble in favor of a competitive market within which companies have an incentive to offer better service and lower prices. A company that knows you have no other option besides purchasing its service has no reason to provide the kind of speeds Chattanooga has attained.

“The companies that you hate are destroying the Internet that you love,” Greer said. As it stands, there are laws in 20 states that ban municipal Internet service in favor of the telecom companies. Wheeler has vowed to do what he can to eliminate such blockades, but no major steps have been taken in that direction.

Protests like Internet Slowdown Day and the continued push to make the Internet a public utility are episodes in long battles that have no definite end in sight, but Greer promises that activists are in it for the long haul. The chairman of the FCC recognizes that lack of competition is hurting consumers’ ability to access sufficient online service, and millions of people have sent comments to the agency in support of net neutrality. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether the public interest and Wheeler’s expressed concerns actually override the vested interests of some of America’s largest corporations.

Thor Benson is a traveling writer who currently lives in Los Angeles. He has written for Slate, Vice, Fast Company and many others. Follow him at @thor_benson.

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