Think About The Internet In A Slightly Different Way, And Wow, This Stuff's Important

Net neutrality explained in a way that I (finally) really understand.

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Here's an idea: the Internet is a public utility. Okay, so, one big thing right up front, because of the sensitive political nature of the topic of today's episode, we have to be extra careful, more careful than usual, about making something exceptionally clear. I'm about to say a bunch of things that I think. Just me, Mike, the guy talking. Or, as the lawyers would phrase it. Okay, so, now that that's out of the way, let's talk about how the Internet works in the United States and how that might be about to change. Insofar as the Internet is a series of tubes, there are large companies that provide access to those tubes. They're called Internet Service Providers and you, the consumer, buy that access from them. With that access, consumers can visit webpages, download stuff, watch tutorials on how to have swag, you know, Internet stuff. But that is only half the equation. The people who make and provide the Internet stuff, they are the other half. Those website makers also pay for Internet access, and recently I.S.P.s have been lobbying to implement a tiered system of access for the makers, charging them to get their Internet stuff to consumer eyeballs faster. Meaning, a website that pays I.S.P.s may appear faster than a website that doesn't pay I.S.P.s, and who wants to be the slowpoke going through the tubes? You guessed it, Frank Stallone. I mean, nobody. Nobody does. Like, hypothetically, maybe Facebook pays Comcast to get to your computer faster, but the Harvard freshman building the next big social network in her dorm room can't pay Comcast and by comparison her social network seems so slow. Why would you use it? It's like a social network for molasses. In January.

This tiered system of Internet access is a transgression of net neutrality. No matter who you are, the bits sent out by your website or service should get to their destination without discrimination. No quantum of Internet is fundamentally more important than any other. This arguably made the Internet what it is. Reddit has the same access as C.N.N., YouTube as Hulu, all things being equal V.H.X.'s bits get to you just as fast as Amazon's and Tumblr's just as fast as WordPress'. As far as the Internet has democratized anything, net neutrality has been central to that democratization. Now, the Federal Communications Commission, and independent government body tasked with regulating, you guessed it, communications intended to preserve the Internet as an open platform, enabling consumer choice, freedom of expression and user control, competition, and the freedom to innovate without permission. They wanted to maintain a level playing field. All bits having the same priority. But, a recent court ruling said that, in order for the F.C.C. to do that, Internet Service Providers, perhaps now more accurately named Internet Service Throttlers, would need to be legally reclassified as common carriers. Right now they're classified as information services and have been since 1996 when a group of people thought, "Pbbft, we don't need all this common carrier regulation, the market will make sure that all of this stays fair and stuff," and what they didn't realize is that the market is why we can't have nice things. So right now, we're in a kind of limbo. In the fall, the FCC will decide if I.S.P.s are common carriers. Public Knowledge writes, link in the doobly-doo, that the common carrier solution is far from perfect, but it is the best chance for maintaining net neutrality. And seeing as how that's the case, let's talk a little bit more about common carriers. Originally, common carriers were things like municipal buses, freight, and pipelines. They carried people or cargo and if the people or cargo were on time, paid up, and there was room, regulation dictated the carrier must carry them without discrimination or else.

We eventually applied this logic to telephone lines. TelCos can't discriminate against what gets transmitted over their lines as long as everyone is paid up and otherwise behaving. Applying the same logic to Internet Service Provision would maintain net neutrality. Importantly, common carriage has some overlap with, but isn't exactly the same as a public utility. Things like gas, electricity, or water. While a common carrier provides its services under the license of a regulator like airlines and the F.A.A., a public utility provides its own infrastructure for whatever it carries, like Con Edison and the New York City power grid. Buses are common carriage but they are not a public utility. Electricity is a public utility, but is usually not common carriage. Phone lines are both, and the Internet is neither. At least not officially, yet. Maybe eventually we'll sort this whole mess out, reclassify I.S.P.s as common carriers, shake hands, go home, and watch every single VlogBrothers video from the top, knowing that every bit will flow freely from beginning to end. But that doesn't, at least really, address the question of whether or not the Internet and the infrastructure that carries it is or should be considered a public utility. That question is much bigger, and as is usually the case with big questions, much more complicated. The full distinction between common carrier and utility is too much to address here, so links, doobly-doo.

But I hope it suffices to say that designating something as a public utility and regulating it as such says something about its importance, specifically its importance to social welfare, footnote Jamison and Hauge. For many of us, a house permanently without Internet is as incomplete as a house without gas or maybe even electricity. The complicated necessity of Internet access is a common theme here on Idea Channel. As Susan Crawford writes in her book Captive Audience, when the telephone was the dominant medium of exchange, U.S. law required every American have access to a phone, along with other utility services like water and electricity. "Although the Internet has become the dominant medium of our era," Crawford writes, "and no one can get a job, apply for benefits, or keep up with the world without high speed access, this service has been framed as an expensive luxury reserved for the rich." What Crawford calls the grinding monopolistic power and lack of social contract exhibited by the American communications industry has created a situation where a public utility-like necessity is maintained by corporate interests. According to a paper by the Journal of Competition Law and Economics, Jamison and Hauge say that in order for something to be designated and regulated as a public utility, three conditions have to be met. The enterprise providing the utility must be a monopoly. That monopoly must collect extra rents beyond some reasonable price and the utility being provided must be a kind of necessity. It must have a quote, "peculiar relationship to the public." Jamison and Hauge say that the Internet fails this test and therefore should not be regulated as a public utility or common carrier. Personally, I disagree. In my neighborhood, I don't have much of a choice as far as who pumps Internets into my home tubes, compared to other countries, what I pay per month certainly seems to be extra, and I would say if the Internet has anything, it is a peculiar relationship to the public. The fight that's happening right now is not about recognizing the Internet or its infrastructure as a public utility, and maybe that fight will never happen. But reclassifying I.S.P.s as common carriers does take a step in that direction. Is that a thing that we're prepared to do? I think I am, but hey, I'm not a regulatory lawyer, I'm just a guy who makes his living on the Internet, so maybe my relationship to it is a little more peculiar than yours. Maybe it has a little bit more necessity. I do watch a lot of swag tutorials. "This is part three of video tutorial of working with swags."

What do you guys think, should I.S.P.s be reclassified as common carriers? Should the Internet be considered a public utility? Let us know in the comments, and if you want to keep the idea channel bits flowing to your subscription box, neutral or not, please subscribe. And if you want to know more about net neutrality check out these awesome videos from Vi Hart, C.G.P. Grey, Hank Green, and Jaimin over at Game/Show, we'll put some links up here and also down in the place where the links go, where we keep them, in that spot, you know what I'm talking about.

Or maybe it's because there actually are superheroes and Hollywood keeps making superhero films to perpetuate the ruse that they don't exist, so they can get their work done outside of the public eye. Let's see what you guys had to say why there are so many superhero films recently. First things first, a bit of business, me and the Idea Channel team are going to be at VidCon this week, so if you are going to be at VidCon, come and find us and say hi, we want a high five and your autograph, I'm also going to be on some panels, so check out your VidCon agenda, there's one on Thursday and two on Friday, and then on Friday, after panels are done, there's going to be a PBS Digital Studios hosts-wide meetup thing on the convention center grounds, so like I'll be there, Jaimin from Game/Show will be there, Sarah from Art Assignment will be there, Joe from It's Okay to be Smart will be there, so, yeah, we'll tweet about that and put some details in the doobly-doo if you're going to be at VidCon, we want to hang out with you, in the beautiful, VidCon, Anaheim sunshine.

SurefireRox says that superhero films might be popular because of the unchecked optimism that they demonstrate, that the heroes in them feel like they can accomplish anything and that is not something that we tend to have or embody in modern times, but more importantly, points out that my use of the phrase "persons of color" or "superheroes of color" as the case may be is problematic. And yeah, you know, I think there's, it's really easy to get into this habit of, you know, needing a catch-all phrase or term for all of the people that aren't white and that, yeah, is a linguistic and mental habit that is worth breaking, so, thank you, and thank you for letting me know very politely and clearly. Thanks!

Metabeard, TheGamerFromMars, and a bunch of other people said that the reason that there are so many more superhero films is because C.G.I. is getting more powerful and I don't know if I buy this. I think C.G.I. certainly is used in more and more films, but as a genre I would guess that superhero films have seen a larger uptick than any other type or kind of movie that uses C.G.I. I think it's the how, but I don't really think it's the why. And relatedly, Drei Sands on Twitter points out that FilmCritHULK would probably call this a "tangible detail," which is an idea and phrase that I love. We'll put a link to FilmCritHULK's blog post in the doobly-doo, it's great, as they always are. Love you, FilmCritHULK! Stephen Deagle points out the rather complicated and maybe slightly incomplete description of positive versus negative liberty that we delivered via Chris Murray's piece, and also points out what is sometimes, I think, called the paradox of positive liberty which is that it can lead to a kind of authoritarian or tyrannist power and that it is in many cases not a thing to look for, not a thing to celebrate. So, this is a great comment that clears up kind of a confusing part of the episode. So, thank you for writing us, Stephen, I'll put a link to this one and all the other comments in the doobly-doo. Philosophy Tube talks about how superheroes are a kind of power fantasy like a physical strength, you know, you get to see the good guys beating up on the bad guys and putting everything like we said in order, but then Gene Reid reads this as a kind of, you know, applicable in situations where there aren't so many fists and guns, and draws a parallel to the sense of frustration that a lot of Americans have with the government and not feeling like we have power to change things, and feeling like we need some kind of superheroic effort or level of strength in order to make anything change, which…yeah. That's depressing. Relatedly, Chanel Jones sees this as related to everyday problems that people face, and says that it's maybe a kind of catharsis to see superheroes put all of these problems in order and to know that even though they do have superpowers there are still problems that they have, things that they need to overcome. And yeah, there's actually, there's a lot of writing about the kind of postmodern turn that happened a while ago in comic book writing where the superheroes started to become more fallible and more human, which is something that Agatha Xaris Villa sort of touches on in her comments. So, yeah, similar wavelengths. Fantashticideas asks an awesome question about the distinction between superheroism and heroism, and this is probably worthy of its own episode, but we should definitely have touched on it in the last one. For me, if a hero is someone who does amazing and selfless things, then a superhero is someone who does those things but with superpowers, which yeah, I mean, it gets again into the sort of controversial territory of “Is Batman a superhero? He does not have powers”, and I might actually say “No, he's not”, but yeah, I realize, controversy. As far as like, their moral standing, I think traditionally superheroes were thought to have a very strong moral compass, but you know, with the postmodern turn in comics writing that we were just talking about, that has started to change. They've started to become more fallible and more human, so, yeah, there's a lot to talk about here. This is a good question.

This week's episode is brought to you by the hard work of these young avengers, we have a Facebook, an I.R.C, and the subreddit links in the doobly-doo, and the tweet of the week comes from Cloudiekins who alerted me to the existence of a B.B.C. documentary about the nature and definition of freedom. It's called The Trap and the last episode deals with positive versus negative liberty.

And for this week's record swap we're going to be replacing Loney, Dear with Derek Bailey. Some people were very concerned in the comments about the structural integrity of the Idea Channel wall, and I will let you know that you should be worried. Your worry is completely founded. Anyways, so, adios to Loney, Dear and welcome, Derek Bailey, my favorite guitar player.

There may be small errors in this transcript.

Original by PBS Idea Channel.

Aug 29, 2014

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