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What if We Google 'Democracy' and Get 'Oligarchy'? | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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What if We Google 'Democracy' and Get 'Oligarchy'?

Why would anyone get mad at Google?

It's the beach from which most us step off to surf the World Wide Web.

We tap a few words in a box—which is framed by a whimsical drawing—and instantly we have found that recipe for madeleines, that definition of antidisestablishmentarianism, the truth about where Barack Obama was really born, the nearest bowling alley and a life partner.

But, last week, activists with civil rights, social justice and free speech groups were protesting outside Google's Mountain View, California, "campus," where they voiced objections to a backroom deal between Google and Verizon that threatens to make the Internet over as a digital version of a bad cable-TV package.

Instead of a free and open Internet that will take Americans wherever they want to go—thanks to the net neutrality principle that is best understood as the first amendment of Internet governance—the Google-Verizon deal threatens to create a circumstance that would allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to speed up access to some content while leaving the rest in the dust. This "pay-for-priority" approach would mean that big corporations could effectively buy speed, quality and other advantages.

Here's how it might work. Suppose you rely on Verizon for wireless service. You want to know about the oil spill on the Gulf Coast. You type in some words to direct the search and up pops a BP site, beautifully-presented and seemingly packed with all the latest news. And what is the news? The BP was a victim of circumstance, that it is doing everything in its power to clean things up, that it certainly should not be held responsible in any formal manner. Chances are the second site that pops up will be that of a BP front group. And the third. And the fourth. Where's the real story? Not on the information superhighway that BP travels but on the digital dirt roads to which public-interest groups that cannot afford to pay the big bucks are relegated.

If the fastest and highest-quality service only takes you to the sites of paying customers, the small "d" democratic promise of the Internet will collapse and this incredible invention—which has so much potential to connect us all to one another and the world—will become he cable TV of the twenty-first century. Or worse.

The "Save the Internet" coalition is fighting the Google-Verizon deal and demanding that the Federal Communications Commission and Congress keep the Internet free and open.

Here's what the defenders of net neutrality say:

"The Google-Verizon pact isn't just as bad as we feared—it's much worse. They are attacking the Internet while claiming to preserve it. Google users won't be fooled.

"They are promising Net Neutrality only for a certain part of the Internet, one that they'll likely stop investing in. But they are also paving the way for a new 'Internet' via fiber and wireless phones where Net Neutrality will not apply and corporations can pick and choose which sites people can easily view on their phones or any other Internet device using these networks.

"It would open the door to outright blocking of applications, just as Comcast did with BitTorrent, or the blocking of content, just as Verizon did with text messages from NARAL Pro-choice America. It would divide the information superhighway, creating new private fast lanes for the big players while leaving the little guy stranded on a winding dirt road.

"Worse still, this pact would turn the Federal Communications Commission into a toothless watchdog, left fruitlessly chasing complaints and unable to make rules of its own.

"This is not real Net Neutrality. And this pact would harm the millions of Americans who have pleaded with our leaders in Washington to defend the free and open Internet. President Obama, Congress and the FCC should reject this deal, restore the authority of the agency that's supposed to protect Internet users, and safeguard Net Neutrality once and for all."

The fight that is ahead will not be an easy one for citizens and consumers.

Wealthy and powerful interests are determined to replace the civic and democratic values that have underpinned the digital revolution up to this point with the commercial and entertainment values that have made old media a "vast wasteland."

They will use every tool at their disposal—lobbying, campaign contributions, spin and media manipulation included—to prevail.

But citizens and consumers can't let that happen.

It is not just a question of ISPs or wireless service, nor of new media versus old. This is a debate about whether the digital communications that shape our lives and choices in the twenty-first century will serve the bottom line of a few powerful corporations or the best interests, the ideals and the democratic aspirations of a people who have understood since they days when Tom Paine was penning pamphlets that there is no democracy unless all Americans have easy and equal access to all the information and all the ideas that are necessary to govern their own affairs and protect their own freedoms.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Lee-Sean Huang.

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