Editorial: There Goes the Internet

Let me start by saying that I would avoid the internet if I could. It is creepy to think about huge corporations tracking each page I visit, and, potentially through my smartphone, actually physically tracking me wherever I go. Social media interactions are a far cry from person-to-person interactions. Even the information we get online is suspect and often biased.

But the truth is that I can’t avoid it. Just as in the past our urban lifestyle replaced our previously agrarian society, the written word replaced oral tradition, and the gasoline engine replaced the horse, so too the internet has become one of the pillars of modern life. And, for all its faults, it does offer interconnectivity, a wide span of easily accessible information, and a practical way to do all kinds of business right from wherever you are.

But that silver lining to the dark cloud the internet has unleashed upon us all is in real jeopardy.

The Federal Communications Commission, headed by Donald Trump appointee Ajit Pai, has introduced a measure to end the so-called Net Neutrality rules established under the Obama administration.

What does this mean? Higher internet prices and less competition among broadband providers, according to Business Insider. Telecom giants like Comcast and Verizon will be able to charge fees and tolls to access information we now get as part of a normal internet hookup.

Net neutrality is the principle that all data sent over a network should be the same, regardless of what site it comes from or what it contains. The 2015 net neutrality rules specifically prohibit internet service providers with blocking, slowing, or providing preferential treatment to certain sites.

That was great for us, and a limit on those service providers. In this age of giant telecommunications mergers (Comcast owns NBC Universal, AT&T is in a fight to buy Time Warner, Verizon owns AOL and Yahoo), those companies have a vested interest in controlling what we all do online, and they want as much control as possible.

Those companies could — without net neutrality — not only charge us, the customers, more, but could also levy fees against small internet firms if they want their content to be available at the same speed as the big players. That gives the big companies yet another advantage, and further wipes out the idea of an egalitarian internet.

This is a time we need more regulation over internet service providers — not less. According to a U.S. Department of Commerce report, only about 37 percent of households have a choice of more than one internet service provider for high speed (at least 25 megabits per second) internet. The rest of us have only one choice, or none.

My own internet service fee will be going up starting in about a month. Why? Because Comcast says it is “increasing programming fees.” What do cable programming fees mean for my family, which doesn’t subscribe to Comcast’s cable television service? It means, “because we can.”

While the FCC’s vote seems to be a foregone conclusion, there are ways to resist this disastrous move to destroy even the imperfect access to internet that we have. The move could be challenged in the courts and Congress could take this up and potentially do something about it following a sea-change election in 2018 (fingers crossed!).

In the meantime, bravo to Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, and Leverett Select Board Chairman Peter d’Errico, who along with more than 50 other mayors across the country, signed a joint letter opposing the FCC’s push to end net neutrality.

“A free and open Internet forms the backbone of the 21st Century economy, and as leaders of local communities we are acutely aware of the threat to education, innovation, and economic growth posed by the proposal,” the Dec. 7 letter reads. “We are also deeply disturbed by the Commission’s efforts to preempt our ability to protect consumers and businesses in our communities. We strongly oppose this proposal, and urge the Commission to reconsider.”

The signatories include mayors of Los Angeles, Boston, New York City, and Chicago.

More restrictive access to the internet is one of many freedoms in danger under the Trump administration. Add it to the list of the things you pester your congressperson about.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@valleyadvocate.com.

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