Friday, April 25, 2014

Net Neutrality & Capitalism 1:01

According to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, the chairman of the United States Federal Communications Commission has secretly proposed a new rule that will allow broadband carriers to provide a “fast lane” to those who pay for it.

The FCC has vehemently denied the reports but no one seems to believe it.

Writing in The New Yorker, Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School and an expert on the topic, declared that if enacted, the rule “will profoundly change the Internet as a platform for free speech and small-scale innovation. It threatens to make the Internet just like everything else in American society: unequal in a way that deeply threatens our long-term prosperity.”

He argued that preferential treatment for some will inevitably mean degrading the service for all others. “We take it for granted that bloggers, start-ups, or nonprofits on an open Internet reach their audiences roughly the same way as everyone else. Now they won’t. They’ll be behind in the queue, watching as companies that can pay tolls to the cable companies speed ahead.”

Amidst the growing talk of the need to mobilize resistance to the rule, let me point out that even if adopted, such a discriminatory rule cannot last long.


Because capitalism in the Information Age is significantly different from what it was during earlier eras.

When English merchants first invented it in the 17th Century, capitalism was merely a means to share the risk of trade with India. The East India Company, created in 1600, was the world’s first joint-stock corporation, and it soon became the model for companies throughout Europe.

The stock markets that came into being to facilitate the buying and selling of shares in trading companies, became, in the industrial era, the means to raise the vast amounts of capital necessary to build the necessary infrastructure.

In those earlier eras, the corporate elite were solidly in charge, with no one able to question their power. They rigged the markets, exploited factory workers, enslaved plantation labour, brutalized or killed anyone who stood in the way, and suborned politicians into giving them impunity. 

In economic terms, corporations ran the only game in town; what opposition they faced could easily be snuffed out.

That is no longer true.

For one thing, the corporate elite itself is split down the middle. The big new boys on the block, Google, Facebook and Twitter, and the entire corporate ecosystem that supports them, have nothing to gain from a two-tier Internet. Their bread is richly buttered on the side of small scale enterprise and innovation.

And it’s not just that. The brick-and-mortar corporations, including online shops and banks, that see profit in a two-tier Net, will find out soon enough that it does not pay to have displeased customers crawling about cyberspace.

The real danger is that the corporate elite will find ways to censor free speech and manipulate public opinion.

The first step towards that is unquestioned mass surveillance in the name of “security.”

In the United States, the battle to limit such blanket surveillance is well under way thanks to whistle-blower Edward Snowden,

In India, with the comical watch-puppies of the corporate media supposedly looking out for our essential freedoms, we have no such luck.

If, God forbid, we get Narendra Modi as prime minister, loss of Net Neutrality will be the least of our worries.

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