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When we hear from the big players in the telecom industry about net neutrality—the requirement that internet service providers (ISPs) treat all content on their network the same—the industry, Williams tells us, “does not call itself commercial, let alone capitalist. It uses public-relations descriptions like ‘free’ and ‘independent’, and often contrasts itself with ‘monopoly’ or ‘state control’” as it calls net neutrality a threat to freedom, peace, and puppies ( p. 32).

Here’s the thing about that quote, though. It’s by Raymond Williams, from Television: Technology and Cultural Form (as republished in 2003) and he wrote it in the 70s about television.

And here’s the thing about those major players and their allies: at the same time that they talk up the “free market” and “free choice” and worry about keeping the government’s hands off the internet and predict doom (Study: Net Neutrality to Cost 600,000 Jobs, Shrink GDP $80 Billion), what they aren’t saying is that they want to keep it legal to use pay-for-play in determining what content you get to see.

Without net neutrality, preferred, partner sites that show the money come to your browser window faster than Average Joe on the Web. Those are the stakes. I keep coming back to a phrase from Williams: “uncontrolled and therefore unequal competition” (p. 38).

The idea that this constitutes anything resembling freedom is laughable, and Williams called this one in the context of TV, too: “The American version of ‘public freedom’ was open broadcasting subject only to the purchase of facilities, which then settled freedom in direct relationship to existing economic inequalities” (p. 136.

In the early days, the FCC “tried to keep the competitive market open, against strong tendencies to monopoly” (p. 30). This continued even into the recent past, but beginning with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 restrictions on how many different media properties one company could own were greatly reduced. And guess what? Fewer and fewer companies own greater and greater swaths of the mediascape—you can, then, blame Clinton for ClearChannel.

The fallout of this is harder to see in the Internet era even than it was in TV times–when we had FoxNews and MSNBC!!11!oneoneeleven!1!! “All earlier forms, in large-scale societies, were more limited in character and scale. The sermon, the lecture, the political address were obviously more limited in immediate points of view. Only in certain favourable situations was there regular choice and variety of viewpoints which is now common within even the limited range of current television argument” (p. 45).

These days, Google News gives us thousands of sources at our fingertips, and that is a dramatic improvement to be sure. But we can’t let that become a bait-and-switch such that “under the cover of talk about choice and competition, a few para-national corporations, with their attendant states and agencies, could reach farther into our lives, at every level from news to psycho-drama, until individual and collective response to many different kinds of experience and problem became almost limited to choice between their programmed possibilities” (p. 157).

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