by Wyatt Closs
We all know how intertwined the internet is in our lives. And while we surf along merrily until our hearts are content and eyes glaze over, what we may not realize is how easily access for the average working person could get hijacked. And why the Beastie Boys are taking on AT&T in shareholder meeting rooms. More on that in a second.
“Internet hijacked? No way,” you say? Way. It all has to do with this notion of having ‘net neutrality’ which you may have heard of but like me, didn’t dig that deep into it.
It’s broken down in this video featuring socially responsible investment adviser Farnum Brown. This man manages millions of dollars for individual investors who want to earn a return with more than just a bottom line but instead with some meaning – people like the Beasties.
In a follow-up interview after the video was done, I also liked this explanation he gave:
“What you’ve had so far is relatively good pricing of the Internet so far by most consumer standards, but what we could be headed towards is something like Cable TV with tiers and gateways and premiums for different levels of services unless the possibilities within the current system are checked.”
Uh-oh. That wouldn’t be good. These days, it’s almost a given that the internet, which was generated by government resources, is like a utility, a vital part of daily life (YouTube cat video watching aside perhaps).
Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and author of a book with the almost-too-long-for-Twitter title “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age,” concurred, writing in a NY Times op-ed
“High-speed Internet access isn’t a luxury; it is basic infrastructure, like electricity, clean water and a functioning street grid, that is essential for the free market to function.”
Our private consumptions aside, as the very definition of work place increasingly shifts, be it for telecommuting, working in a virtually-managed company or doing freelance or contract work from home, workers in this digital economy depend on a fully-functioning, high-quality, top-speed internet. A lack of neutrality is like someone having the capacity to dramatically change the fees a taxi driver has to pay to rent their medallion & vehicle at any moment.
And this kind of work is only continuing to grow as the economy gets reshaped, and moves from the old, traditional, centralized workplace or office.
- People on average spend 1 day a week telecommuting.
- The online work platform, Elance, reports hirings have increased 51%
- England’s trade union federation, the TUC, reports one in five workers aged over 55 are regularly working from home
- A Brandman University – Forrester Research survey of Fortune 500 hiring managers showed 56% of hiring managers expect that the practice of virtual teaming will steadily or greatly increase in their company
It’s not just digitally-oriented jobs like writers, designers or information technology jobs that a ‘toll booth’ to the internet would impact. Imagine if a home care worker who relies on the internet for medical information or keeping in contact with someone’s doctor, nurse, or pharmacy, sees a sudden spike in their cost to access those functions?
So, what are working families and workers in the digital economy to do? Well, it’s a little complicated, much of it hemmed up by the actions of FCC Chairman Michael Powell in 2002. His ruling led to creating a painted corner for the FCC legally that has made attempts to change a definition of what’s called “common carriage” in the telecoms game, a completely jingle-jangled mess. Through a series of rulings and lawsuits the FCC’s principles currently look like the way those curly telephone cords would get all twisted. The Crawford NY Times op-ed lays this out further.
“The most elegant resolution would be for the FCC to reverse the decision of Michael Powell, who now heads the Cable TV trade association by the way” says Brown. Cha-ching! Why that hasn’t happened yet in six years of the Obama administration is perhaps the subject of another blog.
The other solution, in the mean time, is going straight to the companies and getting them to change their ways and policies and see the greater good in net neutrality for the long-term.
And that brings us back to the Beastie Boys. Who, as the video explains, have taken up a campaign against AT&T, Verizon and others, using their stature as shareholders to get net neutrality from inside. They’ve had two votes now, the latest getting 24% of shareholders support or $36 Billion dollars worth of Verizon stock. Not bad. But not quite enough to drop the mic just yet.
The reality is that the only industry that benefits from not having net neutrality is this handful of companies that dominate your ability to get on the internet. All other businesses are subjected to the hijacking to give you, say, critical information and content at a fast high-quality speed. Google, Facebook, Hulu, Netflix, everybody. See how Netflix started duking it out with Comcast not too long ago over these matters.
Oh, and that whole Comcast – Time Warner merger thing isn’t like to reduce this risk, by the way.
Brown observes “We have this era of “Regulatory Capture”, where the entities that are to do the regulating are dominated by people who are part of that industry’s money-making.” He added later “But as an investor, by and large, you’re investing across universal means, even if its an individual stock.” And so, not having net neutrality is bad for businesses across the entire economy because its anti-competitive and inhibits innovation. “
Yeah, and what he said. And, well, its just not cool.
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