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People may yell at me for saying that, but net neutrality is one of America’s longest and now most pointless battles for technology.
The principle is solid: companies like Comcast and AT&T that sell us internet services at home shouldn’t get some online data to computers and televisions faster than others. (The internet companies say it is counterproductive for the government to enforce this.)
Since the Napster era, we’ve been stuck in an endless loop of arguments, laws and repealed laws. California was cleared this week to enforce its own net neutrality ordinance, which (of course) had been challenged in court. This is now a distraction for our elected leaders and corporations when there are more pressing issues.
I spoke to my colleague Cecilia Kang about the origins of the war over net neutrality (barbershop music!) And what is at stake.
Shira: How long have we been fighting for net neutrality?
Cecilia: Forever. It’s probably the oldest technology policy problem I can remember, and I’ve been doing that for a long time. The idea of net neutrality goes back in the past, but really started in 2008. One article discussed a man whose Comcast internet service appears to be preventing him from listening to the barbershop quartet’s music via peer-to-peer file sharing. The Federal Communications Commission has approved Comcast. That led to a battle over federal regulations and a war between telecommunications providers and technology companies.
Why is the fight important to us?
Many Americans have only one or possibly two options for home internet service providers. These companies can theoretically decide whether we can watch Netflix or YouTube crystal clear, or whether we can see the wind turbine of death when these websites stutter. You can see the attractiveness of rules that ensure Internet service providers block web traffic only when it comes from their preferred business partners or their own streaming services.
However, the debate is much less urgent as the threats posed by online disinformation about vaccine use and elections. The net neutrality debate centered on Internet service providers as powerful porters of Internet information. This term now seems to be more applied to Facebook, Google, and Amazon.
If google has its own underwater internet cableIsn’t that the reality? Some internet services reach us faster no matter what the law says?
Yes, but the ISPs like Spectrum, Verizon, and Comcast, who have lines straight into homes, are the regulators most important. They also scared Silicon Valley because every online business needs these internet service providers to get into American homes.
What happens next?
More states are likely to follow California to push for their own net neutrality rules, or the FCC will promote national rules that prevent states. Groups that want net neutrality laws will be happy with either. Telecommunications companies prefer a national law or no law at all.
Internet providers, public interest groups, some technology companies, and a group of our elected leaders have been shouting a holy war over an issue for 13 years with no resolution. Can they strike a middle ground and we will all move on?
There’s probably no big middle ground. There are either net neutrality rules or none. And ISPs see net neutrality as a slippery slope that leads to broader regulation of high-speed Internet services or government-imposed price restrictions that they can charge. They will fight any regulation. And the same goes for the lobbyists who are hired to argue against something.
Cecilia, that’s the absolute worst.
Yes, totally cynical. Welcome to Washington!
Facebook’s wrong choice
Facebook launched a campaign on Thursday to convince the public that how to make money is good for us. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
As a reminder, Facebook gathers information about what we do in its apps, across the web and in the real world. This data is used to help Nike or the local coffee shop serve ads to people who are likely to be potential customers. Google works similarly, and many companies are trying to make versions of it.
These targeted ads, based on our behavior or computerized inferences about what we like, benefit both us and the businesses. We’ll likely get cheaper picture frames or hotel rooms because Facebook offers businesses a relatively inexpensive way to identify the most receptive customers.
But Facebook also offers a wrong choice between old and wasteful types of advertising and the current way of recording every hamburger you’ve eaten since 2001 to pinpoint ads. No no no no no.
Facebook is effectively saying that the only alternative to its invasive, data-intensive status quo is the pre-Internet system, where magazines, news organizations, and television networks more or less guess the right audience for a Nike commercial.
However, the way Facebook and Google designed their advertising systems isn’t the only alternative to the clunky old methods.
Here are some questions we and policy makers need to ask Facebook and other companies that sell ads: What if the companies collected less data about us? Does Facebook really need to know every time we visit Starbucks to the millisecond? What is an effective middle ground?
We would benefit from fewer Facebook ad campaigns and a more informed debate about how advertising can best serve us all.
Before we go …
The stakes of online life in a country: Facebook banned Myanmar’s military from serving after it led a coup. The decision, wrote my colleagues, “left no question unanswered that the company is on the side of a pro-democracy movement.”
Experience discussions about nuclear power and Korean karaoke competitions: Times technology columnist Kevin Roose explained the appeal of Clubhouse, the lively audio chat room app, but also said it rapidly goes through the typical Internet life cycle from joy to horror.
Companies cannot leave the plus sign: My colleague Tiffany Hsu tells us why every video streaming service has the name “[something]”It’s not that ‘plus’ is the best name,” a source told Tiffany. “It’s the one who survives because everything else is gutted.” Connected: This meme.
A look at the 2019 Slippery Stairs World Championship. Why not?
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