Once upon a time, there was a poor woodcutter who lived on the edge of a forest with his two children. You all know how the tale goes from here, I trust: the breadcrumb path, the gingerbread house, the wicked witch. But for now, I want to focus on the beginning of the tale: the woodcutter, the edge of the forest.
Who owned that forest? Whose land was the woodcutter working? If he was poor, surely it wasn’t his own. But there’s no mention of a landlord, of someone to whom the woodcutter is in debt or contracted to work. He lives on the edge of the woods, and he works the woods. Once, that was common; the woods were just woods, free for all to use.
By 1760, the English had developed a feudal system in which poor people like our woodcutter lived and worked on their Lord’s lands; however, there were still common areas, pastures in which a poor shepherd could graze their sheep and therefore make a living for their family without having to own vast fields. That all changed with a process known as Enclosure: the fencing off of “common land” into parcels of property that were owned by a specific person. Now, every natural resource was private property. Now, if you wanted to make a living, you had to work for someone else, selling your labor and hoping you were paid a living wage.
Once upon a time, there was a college student who lived in a dorm room on the edge of the Internet. He had an idea: a website that other students would find useful, a website that solved a need and brought people together. So he gathered together a bunch of parts, and put together a server, and deployed his site onto it. Soon, everyone was using his new site; it became popular, so popular that he had to move to bigger servers to accommodate all the traffic.
How does this story end? Well, that really depends when “once upon a time” was. In 2004, it ends with, “And thus, Facebook was born.” If we lose Net Neutrality, it ends with, “but his website was a threat to an established social media giant, and so, the ISPs began to throttle his bandwidth until his user base dried up and vanished.”
But of course, in 2017, the number of people who can and are willing to put together a server in their dorm room is shrinking. Even among my coworkers, all of whom are capable of running a linux machine at home to host their own projects, few do; our code goes on Github.com, our sites on Github Pages or maybe Digital Ocean droplets or AWS servers. The idea that you can just sit down and make a “personal home page” on your home computer and anyone could access it is slowly vanishing from our collective consciousness; now, a website is something you pay someone to design, then pay someone else to build, so you can pay a third person to host it. More and more, websites are something commercial entities put together to sell products; if you want to create a space to connect with other people, or you want to showcase what’s going on in your life, you turn to Facebook or Instagram or YouTube or Twitter. And of course, they control your content. They get to make the rules about what you can and can’t build on their platforms.
Net Neutrality is a battle we need to fight, and we need to win. But it’s a battle we’ve fought and won before, and it keeps coming back up. We need to think about how to win the war once and for all. Is there, can there be, a way to decentralize the Internet? To move away from platforms, but still have interconnectedness, searchability, usability?