Seething below the surface of citizens’ outrage at the FCC proposal to create a tiered, pay-to-play internet structure lays a story people know so well, it could be encoded in our DNA.
The rich and powerful are stealing the commons of the people.
Comcast, Verizon and other telecom giants are the new Lairds of the Highlands, the Marie Antoinettes, the Robber Barons of the 1890s. The Commons are no longer large tracks of land or public grazing grounds or local self-governance – those have already been stolen. The Commons under assault is the internet.
As with every achievement of humanity, individual sectors of the populace try to take credit and ownership of the internet, saying, “I created this” or “I provide the infrastructure for your access.” This is akin to saying, “I built the Empire State Building” instead of “thousands of hardworking, impoverished Americans poured the concrete and scaled the steel trusses; countless educators and inventors passed the knowledge of engineering to the designers; and the banks financed the construction with funds from war profiteering that was made on the bloodshed of millions.”
Truth is hard to swallow, lengthy, complicated, and often more sordid than the tidy “I built the Empire State Building.” The whole of the populace supports the efforts and achievements of the society, but all too often, the lauding of individual success glosses over the theft of common efforts, resources and knowledge that underlies the immense power and profit of the few.
The internet was build not by a single individual. It arose through the combined efforts of billions of people – techies, teachers, factory workers, miners, military think tanks, visionaries, software designers, celeb personalities, small business owners, and most of all: the users. The users are the unsung heroes of the internet’s success. Billions of clicking, searching, watching, chatting users drive the functionality of the internet. Service providers claim a place of power, yet without users, they are nothing but bored toll-takers at the doors of a vast, empty agora.
The development of agriculture provides an insightful parallel to the internet. Both emerged from the collective efforts of society, and, as with agriculture, the greedy few monopolize what should belong equally to all. Agriculture requires five main ingredients: lands, seeds, labor, water and sunlight. At one time, these were all free; but now, the first three on the list have been relentlessly privatized and controlled by the rich and powerful. Water currently faces a global assault from privatization. The last, sunlight, simply waits for the day when human greed knows no bounds. When the colonization of the human mind is complete, no one will question why we must pay a fee to gain access to a sun that used to shine freely on all, but now is owned by an enterprising new millennium version of the land-grabbing William the Conqueror.
The theft of common land to privatized ownership is a major strand in human history – one that is often left unexamined in our history books. Long ago, the Earth spread out in all directions, equally accessible to humans, plants, forests, rivers, clouds and oceans. But now, the Earth has been snatched up by the human species under the concept of private ownership. Once owned by none, used by all; our globe is now controlled by human beings for the purpose of benefiting our species, above all others, and for the profit of a few members of our species above the well-being of all of the rest of creation.
The tiered, pay-to-play proposal of the internet is yet another thrust of the longest root of injustice that humanity can remember: the domination of the commons for the profit of the few. “Equal access” is not just a dry, technical term referring to stopping a proposal about fast- or slow-loading website rates. It is the rallying cry of the Scottish peasants shoved off the Highlands by lords who wanted to profit from sheep. It is the cry loosed by Crazy Horse, Black Elk and all the indigenous peoples of North America as the Europeans slaughtered not only their tribes, but also the notion of equality between humanity, animals and plants on an Earth that could not be owned. It is the cry of the French peasants who wanted bread for their children while the aristocrats feasted on cake. It is the songs of African Americans yearning for equal access to liberty, voting and civil rights. It is the flaming body of Mohamed Bouazizi who ignited the Tunisian Revolution in protest of debilitating poverty. It is the echo of countless cries for justice and equality that have resounded throughout human history.
The contemporary battle for Net Neutrality must be understood as the front line of a 10,000-year battle between avaricious elites and the average citizens’ struggle for equality. The efforts of the corporations to control the internet reflect ancient patterns of conquest and control. To the power-hungry, the internet is just a new world from which they can profit. But humanity has reached this crossroads before. We have encountered a so-called New World; we have learned through intense suffering that colonization, conquest, domination and genocide are immoral. We cannot pretend the internet is an empty land, free for the taking. Like the Americas at the time of European contact, the internet is a world populated by millions of people. The internet does not belong to Comcast or Verizon, or the FCC, or Silicon Valley or the United States, or even the whole of humanity.
The internet belongs to all of the Earth, for all of Earth gave rise to it.
The nonhuman species of the Earth have long been viewed as resources for the human species. Yet, when examining the Commons, the internet and the history of privatization, it must be pointed out that land, animals and plants have been subjected to human domination, giving rise to a human-centric world view that trivializes the contributions of our natural world to modern inventions like the internet. Yet, the internet was not built out of thin air by human effort alone. The Earth created the minerals that built the computers. The rivers brought the water that cooled the power plants that fuel the electricity to servers. The sky and forests create the oxygen that every single human that touches the internet breathes. The nonhuman resources that have contributed to the internet have often been terribly abused in the process of this creation. Before the CEOs and shareholders of Comcast and Verizon receive a dime, before Bill Gates collects another million, perhaps we ought to pause to consider the sacrifices of our Earth in the creation of the internet and apply the profits to the restoration of destroyed ecosystems and remediation of toxically polluted areas.
These are deep and weighty questions that bear lengthy examination. The immorality of the privatization of the commons – or of the once-free species and natural systems that comprise Earth – by individuals and groups shakes the core of human civilization. The notion of ownership straddles its legs over both profit and access. In the struggle for equal access to the internet, the telecom corporations’ ambitious drive for the tiered, pay-to-play system echoes the corporate charters of the East India Company to control all access to foreign lands – a claim that grew to include ownership of those lands.
In the realm of the internet, all human beings deserve equal access. For one human regulatory committee to pass a proposal to subjugate the internet to the control of the few is tantamount to treason in a world that so desperately needs to learn equality. It is another betrayal in the long history of theft of our collective commons. It is a backslide in the efforts to understand equality in the context of our interconnected fate with every species on this Earth.
Tom Wheeler will speak with youth on Monday, June 30, in New Mexico. Help amplify their voices.
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