Sam Rosenberg: What’s at stake for social media if we lose net neutrality

Sunday, December 3, 2017 - 6:01pm

As 2017 draws to a long dreaded close, we can look back on all the wonderful — and occasionally awful — things that happened on social media this year. From the death of Vine to the bump to 280 characters on Twitter, online celebrity beefs to online celebrity apologies, Fiona the Hippo to covfefe, social media in 2017 has elicited both foreboding and optimism for the future of our online world.

At times, social media may generate toxic political discourse, an anxiety-inducing need to bring about social change and harrowing videos that depict acts of racially motivated violence. But social media has its benefits too, given how much advantage we have as online users to shape and influence other people with our words and our ideas. It acts as a stepping stone for holding corrupt men in power accountable for their actions, a paradigm for enlightening people on under-the radar social issues and a virtual cesspool for exchanging jokes, memes and other pop cultural obsessions.

Even with its drawbacks, social media gives us the power to decide what we want to subscribe to and who we want to share our worlds with.

However, the future of social media, or rather its accessibility, remains uncertain for 2018. On Nov. 21st, the Trump-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai set in motion a plan to repeal net neutrality, a set of rules and regulations that, if retracted, could endanger our ability to use the Internet freely. Pai and the five other chairmen of the FCC will decide on whether or not to keep net neutrality on Dec. 14. They would only need three votes in order to pass it.

For those still confused about what net neutrality is, it essentially grants a “free and open” Internet for online consumers. It preserves our right to communicate freely online and levels the playing field so that no single Internet provider has more control over the Internet than another.

If net neutrality were to be repealed, broadband providers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast would be given the power to regulate the speed and bandwidth of streaming services like Netflix and video streaming websites like YouTube. They could also block websites they deem inappropriate and bundle social media platforms like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram for a packaged price, most likely up to $5 a month. So if, let’s say, someone wanted to use just Twitter, they might also have to pay money for FourSquare. Or if someone wanted to watch Netflix and Hulu but Hulu wasn’t included in a package, then they are more likely to use whichever streaming service is cheaper depending on their broadband provider.

This issue of repealing net neutrality, of course, is not new. It was brought up and then quickly resolved in 2015 when the FCC established protections to prevent broadband providers from commodifying and packaging the Internet for their benefit. During his presidency, Barack Obama was a major proponent in advocating for keeping net neutrality for the American people. But now with Trump in office, the fate of net neutrality has the actual potential to be taken away.

The lack of free access to the Internet would not only greatly affect people across the country, but also communities of color and other marginalized communities in particular. Because the Internet has become such an significant platform for voicing social issues and general self-expression from these communities, the lack of net neutrality would limit those freedoms.

According to Vice commentator Mack Lamoureux, the U.S. will be seen as a major geopolitical power if it were to pass the net neutrality repeal, causing other countries like Canada to potentially follow our lead. Portugal is one such country that shows what life could look like for Americans without net neutrality, as it offers users commodified packages of different social media outlets, music and video streaming services and even email.   

Luckily, people have already taken notice of how the FCC’s decision may drastically impact social media. Social media itself has become the main purveyor in taking action against repealing net neutrality. Everyone from California senator Kamala Harris to actress, singer and Twitter icon Cher has called upon social media users to recognize the stakes in losing a free Internet. Battle for the Net is a newly created project that encourages Americans to write letters to Congress and attend protests demanding a vote against the repeal. “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver has not one, not two, but three exhaustive, comprehensive videos on net neutrality and the costs of repealing it.

If we want to keep engaging in the way we already do on the Internet, we must work to maintain it as such, whether through online outreach, protests or dialogue. Otherwise, we must reconcile with the fact that that may not be a reality in the near future.

The Internet has given us a lot to worry about, but it’s also given us a platform to express ourselves and consume things that make us informed and happy. We should at least try to give back.