Lighting My Match: Making the Concept of Net Neutrality More Accessible for Small Business Owners

When I returned from my blogging lunch (in comparison to a working lunch), I attended a speech by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. I’d just managed to wrap my mind around what I could do as a single person for this cause when he urged the audience to “light a match” explaining that in a room of darkness, a single match throws out alot of light.

I must agree…

In an effort to light my own match, I started working to gather more effective tools I need to explain the issues to my own “sphere of influence” when I return from Memphis.

During a later afternoon session on Net Neutrality, I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Tim Wu (probable author of the term “Net Neutrality”), professor of law at Stanford and proponent of Net Neutrality.

His own definition from Wikipedia is: “Network neutrality is best defined as a network design principle. The idea is that a maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally. This allows the network to carry every form of information and support every kind of application. The principle suggests that information networks are often more valuable when they are less specialized – when they are a platform for multiple uses, present and future.”

In person, he’s a little more “accessible” on the topic.

I asked him, after the session, to help me with my toolbox for explaining Net Neutrality to the uninitiated. I told him I worked with small business owners, real estate agents and independent service providers as clients and peers. I told him my difficulties in trying to describe the issue without being tagged an alarmist, watching people’s eyes glaze over, or being told one of the following:

  1. The free market will take care of this, if they shunt the access to the Internet, the companies won’t have enough business to survive, it’s a non-problem and will resolve itself.
  2. I’m too busy just running my business right now to worry about this, I’ll get involved when and if something actually happens to my access to the Internet.

Tim shook his head and said that he understood my frustration and that these were common reactions. And, he offered me the following tool — the following way to discuss this issue with my clients and peers:

He recommended I use the example of electricity. He said that was something everyone could grasp — and that it was a free and open system right now, like the Internet.

So, here’s my version of that…Right now, in a small business, everyone who pays for electricity can use it for whatever they want. It doesn’t discriminate based on use. For instance, you can use a fax machine or a blender, a radio or an lamp. You aren’t told what you can and what you can’t plug in. Likewise, right now on the Internet, you aren’t told what sites you can and can’t see. It’s an open, non-discriminatory system for all uses. If the Internet no longer enjoys neutrality, someone else will make the decision on what you can “plug in” someone else will decide what sites you can visit and what information you can access.

I like that comparison. It works. Another one that he gave during the session was the ownership of the infrastructure of the roadways in America. He said that people would never stand for private, corporate ownership of these essential systems. No one would agree to a large company determining where they could and could not go in their cars… but that individuals don’t see that this is the same type of issue. Substitute “roadway infrastructure” with “internet” and “private cars” with “personal computers” and you have the same deal.

And in response to one comment I’ve heard… “Why would anyone block a site, that doesn’t make sense?” I’ll offer the following: For the same reason that TV ads feature large companies… they PAY more than the “mom and pop shops” because they can. It’s an economic model wherein the larger, more well-funded corporations get all the exposure.

Right now that’s not the case online. Right now, we have a meritocracy wherein the sites with the information you want are sorted based (mostly) on the quality of content. For now… but in two years, when the AT&T agreement to observe Net Neutrality expires… then what?