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I don’t know how an iPhone works. I think I understand parts of it. Like, I get the fundamentals of how radio waves carry data. And I sort of get how batteries store energy. But I have no idea how microprocessors work or how orbiting satellites triangulate location data.
In fact, I’m not entirely sure the makers of the iPhone comprehend all of its parts. The person who designed the iPhone’s operating system probably doesn’t know how the screen works. And the expert who built the camera doesn’t quite know how the case is designed. It’s possible that no one person fully understands all the parts of an iPhone.
Things weren’t always like this. My granddad, for example, never owned anything in his whole life that he couldn’t disassemble and rebuild in his kitchen. I can’t say that about anything I own.
But this is the new normal and it shouldn’t be surprising. When systems become complex, the only way we can advance it is if we support deep specializations and rely on shared development. To expand, we build almost entirely on collective knowledge. And while this sort of communal innovation has lead to incredible progress in communications technology, it also means we have to accept that most of us will never understand what have become the fundamental pieces of our lives. Not completely, anyways.
Most of the time this confusion is met by a shrug. But sometimes situations arise where our limited knowledge gets the better of us. The potential of this problem has never been clearer than it is today as we debate the future of net neutrality and the rules of an open Internet.
In January, the DC Circuit Court determined that the original Open Internet Order enacted in 2010 was legally unenforceable. This has sent the FCC scrambling to establish new rules that would legally deliver similar protections. And while we’re still in a period of debate and discussion, the process has put a flame under the Internet technology community at large.
Many have been calling this a death blow to net neutrality and are demanding extreme rules – in some cases, calling for the complete dismantling of the current regulatory structure (the structure that brought widespread broadband in the first place) by establishing broadband as a Title II common carrier. The thing is, I worry many people aren’t connecting the growth of the Internet to the regulatory model Internet companies have been working from for the last 20 years. And none of us fully grasp the potential loss if we were to suddenly regulate broadband like a public utility, as Title II would do. We need to admit that the law of unintended consequences is at play when we regulate something as monumental as the Internet.
The core of our Internet runs on top of of dozens of different technologies and function as a result of unrestrictive policies. Like an iPhone, there are experts in some areas, but almost none in all areas. Of course, that hasn’t prevented widespread pontificating on the future of the Internet via countless explainer videos, infographics, blog posts, and web comics all claiming to perfectly explain net neutrality and the importance of treating broadband one way or another. But more often than not, these explainers end up being confusing, oversimplified, or flat-out incorrect. And, thanks to a mix of hubris and frustration, this kind of deeply misleading information has ruled the debate.
There’s a faction who relish this kind of misguided narrative. They know they’ve deeply distorted a complex issue, but who cares? It’s a means to an end. But for those who were hoping for a constructive conversation about the merits of one regulatory model over another, or those who were genuinely interested in a debate over the fundamental elements of net neutrality, there is almost no chance of thoughtful discourse.
Cable ISPs have long held that consumers and business should have unfettered access to the Internet. That protecting Internet users and offering an equitable, accessible online experience is in our best interests. That a so-called two-tiered Internet where ISPs purposefully hurt innovation in favor of paid or self-interests is absurd. In other words, cable companies often share the same viewpoint as those who point the finger at us for wanting to end the Internet as we know it.
So what can be done about this unfortunate and largely misconstrued debate? We’ll continue to do our part to contribute constructively to the conversation. To reveal that we support sensible open Internet rules. We’ll work to show more people that we have a lot in common in this debate and that this isn’t a ‘good guys versus bad guys’ issue. We’ll work to dispel myths and remind the Internet community that we have the same wide-eyed ambition for the greatest piece of technology ever devised and that we’re partners in its growth, health, and development.
I don’t know how all of its parts work, but I know I love the Internet. We all do. And we’re all striving to make it work as it was intended to – as a free, open exchange of ideas.
That’s all we can do.