Thursday’s net neutrality ruling was a victory for consumers. It also ushers in a new age for the mainstream politics of the internet.
Net neutrality won. The internet is ours! We’ve taken it! Stolen it back from the people who, well, provide it to us at a pretty reasonable rate, truth be told. The entire library of human everything delivered right to your doorstep for a mere $20 to $50 or so a month, depending on how fast it is that you want that everything. Now that the FCC has voted to enshrine net neutrality, there is nothing left standing between you and the great unlimited gush of audio and video bits and packets slip-sliding right into your Sonos at democratically arrived-at speeds, unencumbered by fast or slow lanes. It means that your startup porn comes right to you with the same speed as your well-established, big business, legacy pornography. Let the binge-watching bonanza begin, this is America!
And yet, it still could serve as a political bludgeon. An example of the way President Obama overreaches. Something that divides Democrats and Republicans. In other words: politics as usual.
No matter your feelings on net neutrality, it’s hard to feel like the FCC’s decision Thursday represents anything other than the mainstreaming of the internet as a political issue. Because while net neutrality’s victory means that things on the technology side will largely stay the same, it also means that something pretty big changed politically.
Remember, it was just over a year ago that net neutrality looked crispy. The movement over the 13 months that took net neutrality from dead to all but enshrined is demonstrable evidence that technology and the internet have become mainstream issues that will play a big, permanent role in politics.
As the net becomes ever more something that is a part of mainstream, middle-class American life, it’s going to also become increasingly subject to regulation and legislation. And along with that, people are increasingly going to care about how it’s regulated. The internet is now meat-and-potato politics, like gas prices and health care costs — the quotidian stuff of City Hall press conferences, empty congressional speeches, vision and demagoguery alike, and of high-pressure, high-stakes regulatory action.
There will be all kinds of internet issues at play in the upcoming election cycle. And that’s just going to keep going, and going, and going. It’s why beltway heavyweights like David Plouffe and Jay Carney are going to work for tech firms, and why even traditionally politically shy tech firms like Apple are lobbying hard now.
Net neutrality’s win proves that internet issues are popular issues, and ones that politicians are going to have to pay attention to. It is because the internet has become a popular, mainstream political issue that Barack Obama made a major push on net neutrality last fall. It is because the internet has become a popular, mainstream political issue that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler reversed course from his previous stance. “The internet must be fast, fair and open,” he wrote in a Wired opinion piece. “That is the message I’ve heard from consumers and innovators across this nation.”
Those consumers are also known as voters. And by this summer, net neutrality –not exactly a traditional meat and potatoes issue — had gotten politically hot. Obama himself was following voters, not leading them. Americans had already flocked to the issue — especially after John Oliver weighed in on Last Week Tonight. That segment was so popular that his call to action effectively crashed the FCC’s website. Whether you credit John Oliver or Barack Obama with winning them over (and, come on, it was John Oliver) what’s really fascinating is that on this internet issue, America showed up. That’s new.
Of course, this wasn’t the first big political issue for the internet. SOPA and CISPA both caused a ruckus — and even led to radicalized anons performing large-scale civil disobedience in the form of protest-hacking. But these were sideshows by comparison. Or at least warm-ups. While they rallied effective opposition from a tech-savvy pool, they didn’t spill out as broadly into American homes.
Net neutrality did slosh out of containing screens and onto American dinner tables because it had a very clear pitch: Do you want your internet services to slow down? Do you want Orange Is the New Black to start buffering because Netflix couldn’t get a deal done with Time Warner? Do you want your games to choke out and stall? And America had a very clear response: Don’t fuck with my HBO Go, yo.
Net neutrality mattered because it was relatable to things that are already a part of all of our lives in a way that the CDA or the DMCA, or SOPA or CISPA or any other number of acronymic issues have not been. It’s not that the acronyms have been bad, it’s that net neutrality really connected to a way we’re already living.
Take a moment to look around you and see how many internet-connected things there are. And consider all of the various streams, services, and apps there are that serve those devices. And then think of what you would have seen with that same gaze just five or six years ago. That’s the difference.
The internet is in everything now, and that includes politics.