No one likes the pinwheel of doom. Or that interminable circle on your Netflix screen, like a serpent chasing its own tail, signifying that you cannot have exactly what you want right then and there because the next episode of Orange is the New Black is buffering.
Today, a host of powerful websites, ranging from Kickstarter to Netflix to Pornhub, are trying to remind users how much we hate waiting for anything on the internet. Promoted as a protest against the FCC's new controversial net neutrality rules, "Internet Slowdown Day" offers pretty much none of what it promises on the label.
Net neutrality regulation needs our attention — it will do no less than determine the future shape of the web. However, online protests in opposition to what net neutrality defenders call a "two-tiered" internet have been weak and gimmicky. Unlike in January 2012, when a number of major websites including Reddit and Wikipedia performed a genuine form of online strike, blacking out content for a day in protest against the proposed and overreaching Stop Online Piracy Act, Wednesday's efforts barely deserve the term protest.
There is no "Internet Slowdown." Rather, sites are adding a small widget to their webpages, displaying the dreaded "loading" icons and a message noting, "If the internet had slow lanes, you'd still be waiting." A link then leads users to an online petition with which they can complain to the FCC.
No doubt, there is value in an awareness-raising campaign — much is at stake with net neutrality. However, this is essentially savvy petition gathering — lazy clicktivism at worst — drenching itself in the bellicose parlance of political struggle. Digital rights groups and tech giants alike are talking about the neutrality debate as the "battle for the net." But it's not a battle. It's a campaign.
Which is well and good, so long as it's recognized as such. The "battle for the net," or more broadly the "war on information" as whistleblower advocate Jesselyn Radack has called it, is being fought over the fact of totalized surveillance and the draconian punishments doled out to people like Jeremy Hammond, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for his involvement in the hack of security firm Statfor.
Hacktivists like Hammond went into battle. Calling your Congressman or -woman over FCC regulation does not an online warrior make.
The concern highlighted by Wednesday's online demonstration is that without the preservation of net neutrality, major companies would be able to buy access to a so-called "fastlane" internet. For a site like Netflix, which uses an immense amount of bandwidth, the ability to pay for faster access to users makes a lot of sense. But the streaming site is standing alongside net neutrality supporters in arguing that all data be treated equally. It's true that the internet would be diminished were the speed of data beholden to how deep a company's pocket may be. But preserving net neutrality is not primarily, as digital rights groups saiy, about maintaining the web as an egalitarian and democratic utopia. Such myths of cybernetic liberation died with the hegemonic rise of Google and mighty social networks like Facebook.
Net neutrality, like anti-monopoly regulation, is about enabling the internet to continue to function as a marketplace open to both small and large players. Google's policy manager Derek Slater said as much when he told the Guardian, "The internet was designed to empower people. To get online, you need to use an internet access provider. But once you're online, you decide what to do and where to go. Anyone, anywhere can share their opinions freely — and any entrepreneur, big or small, can build, launch, and innovate without having to get permission first."
Certainly, online information flows should remain as unfettered as possible. But let's not kid ourselves — there's always a cost. Edward Snowden's NSA revelations have illustrated that our online lives come at the cost of privacy. The suicide of Aaron Swartz — the young technologist faced decades in prison for downloading academic articles — illustrated with haunting effect that information is not free.
The end of net neutrality could deliver a final blow to the idea of a free and open internet, but that would be a knockout punch after years of jabs and uppercuts. As such, it is disingenuous to call the fight for net neutrality a battle for a democratic cyberspace. It is about as disingenuous as popping a widget on a free porn website proclaiming an Internet Slowdown, and continuing to stream videos and ads at a normal pace all day.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
Image via Wikimedia