Is Net Neutrality a Feminist Issue?

August 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

by ADI

You may have heard that Google and Verizon have released a “policy statement” about the future of the Internet, urging people to accept the creation of new, “differentiated” services (they suggest health care monitoring, gaming and entertainment services, and advanced educational options) for which they would be charged more than traditional Internet access prices. It’s been generating controversy because it may violate what’s known as “network neutrality,” a commitment to delivering all Internet content for the same price and at the same speed. But what does this mean for feminists?

For me, this is worrying from a purely self-oriented standpoint: I don’t want to end up paying more to access certain parts of the Internet. For lots of people, however, this wouldn’t be an extra inconvenience, but rather a major barrier to accessing parts of the Internet. Right now, this isn’t likely to affect us much, but imagine that the next major Internet breakthrough–the next Wikipedia, the next health care system, the next Twitter—gets put on the “premium” Internet and you have something of an idea where this might be going.

So as a feminist and generally concerned person, I’m worried about what this means to people for whom the Internet is already an unaffordable or unavailable luxury. I definitely have problems with the effects that my technology has on others, from the way Apple products generate waste to the exploitatively-mined rare metals in most electronics. However, cell phones and the Internet have also been great levelers. Cell phones have given people in rural areas the ability to connect with the world, improving their work and their lives (take, for example, this remote control device for farmers). And the Internet has given people a way to get free online courses from schools like MIT, read articles about virtually anything, and make their voices heard on blogs like this.

At the same time, the Internet has also become as much a necessity as the telephone, making things even more difficult for the 34% of Americans who don’t have broadband Internet, or the roughly 25-30% who have no home Internet access at all. Finding a job, registering your children for school, or even keeping in touch with relatives becomes more and more difficult as a steady Internet connection becomes taken for granted.

Many of these people already rely on schools, libraries and other public places to access basic services like email or job boards; are these places going to be able to pay extra to get whatever premium services are offered through Verizon? It might not matter if, as Verizon and Google say, they’re only putting a few high-content video streaming services up on a for-pay basis, but many things, including those job boards and email systems, can be “differentiated” from the normal Internet, and the more barriers get put up between poor communities and job, education, or health care opportunities, the more we’re moving into a system where class mobility is a pleasant fiction.

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