Net Neutrality Isn’t the Problem—It’s the Internet Itself

Protesters carry the top of an alarm clock display that reads "Net Neutrality" after a protest at the FCC headquarters in Washington.

Protesters carry the top of an alarm clock display that reads "Net Neutrality" after a protest at the FCC headquarters in Washington. Carolyn Kaster/AP

The internet, from its infrastructure to its applications, is not built for us.

The repeal of net neutrality confirms what we already know: The internet, from its infrastructure to its applications, is not built for us.

When we look back at the 1990s libertarian vision of the web—an open network from which everyone might profit—it seems quaint. The tech pontificators at Davos fawningly predicted an internet that would reimagine and refigure governance. It would be a network that could overthrow existing hierarchies and distribute power equitably; a truly capitalist space where, in the competition of ideas, the best and brightest would be a signal amongst the noise.

Decades later, the web has become an online space that exaggerates the same hierarchies as its offline counterpart—one that can undermine liberal democracy and civil discourse under the cover of advertising revenues. It’s a space in which minorities are only legible when they are smoothly enveloped by a larger market of white understanding.

We should have expected that a network with the new ideology of extracting maximum profits would succumb to familiar patterns of corporate consolidation and inequity. In this framework, the Federal Communications Commission’s anti-net neutrality decision to allow broadband and wireless carriers to throttle and block online content for the sake of turning extraordinary profits sort of makes sense: It’s just another example of the regulatory capture that has been assaulting us from all fronts. This is what happens when the values of people with legislative power align with the business imperatives of industries in need of regulation.

While it is certainly horrifying that giant infrastructure companies like Comcast and Verizon can legally control the content traveling through their wires, we should be realistic—for there are few parts of the internet that aren’t curated already.

The consolidation of our online attention into the hands of a few major information monopolies like Facebook, Google, Netflix, and Amazon means that access to content has and will continue to be managed by big companies, regardless of how network infrastructure is regulated. Google exerts terrifying control over what we see on the web, while Facebook and Twitter have become echo chambers with the ability to unite atomized racists from across the globe. The net will never be neutral so long as technology oligopoly continues to asphyxiate what we look at when we open our browsers.

In other words, what if our adversary is the internet itself?

Intranet > internet

On the infrastructure side, there is hope. Blossoming from the horror of the FCC’s recent ruling is a growing excitement about public alternatives. Some of these include municipal wireless networks that can circumvent and compete with corporate monopolies, or not-for-profit internet service providers (ISPs) that rely on volunteer and community effort. To push back against the natural monopolies that occur when a market goes fully unchecked, community alternatives for your connection to the internet are crucial.

It’s time to turn inward, close ourselves off from infrastructure that connects us to the internet, and explore the possibilities of local networked communication—a smaller cyberspace where a new form of community can be imagined and practiced. After all, a network does not need to be connected to the internet in order for devices to communicate.

An intranet is a closed and private cyberspace that contains services only available to those who are physically connected to its infrastructure. The information and services hosted on an intranet are not available to the public from the internet, because the public isn’t networked with the same hardware. This would be a network that provides a distinct alternative to the internet without the curated noise of big tech.

What might this look like for an entire neighborhood? Imagine a network that provides community-specific services and information. On it there could be a tool that allows neighbors to build simple personal web pages, or a Craigslist-like service to share community information. There could be a constellation of neighborhood-specific websites that can only exist within the boundaries of this network—and no Facebook, Google, or other companies that are quietly collecting your data for third-party advertisers.

Now envision a digital world made up of these little cyberspaces. Imagine walking around a city and encountering new networks, each one as distinct as the community you are traveling through. What benefits might this provide for local businesses? How might a neighborhood organize around community specific issues? What new forms of networked intimacy might be expressed when we remove big technology companies from the conversation?

Each network is an internet island: a closed cyberspace defined by the effort of the community, and whose utility is determined by those who participate.

The creation of an internet island is hard work that involves collaborating with local groups and leaders. It involves education and outreach and fully integrating digital resources into the territory where the network will exist. But the payoff is a formation of networked space that is autonomous and purposefully disconnected from the rest of the network; a little cyberspace built by and for your community.

None of this is to say that we need to do away with the internet all together in favor of network archipelagos. But introducing more sovereign internet Islands into our networks is possible, and indeed necessary. If the wide-area network can’t be trusted, we need to imagine and build alternative infrastructures that can be.