Net Neutrality Explained by Thucydides

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Thucydides, who lived in 400 BC and documented the history of the Peloponnesian War, explains concepts in the Melian Dialogue that still apply to everyday life

I recently got really into watching the HBO show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and I have been watching an endless number of episodes and YouTube clips from the show. One clip that I recently watched really caught my attention (I really recommend watching the whole thing even though it is slightly lenghty and has a touch of profanity in it). The clip talks about the Internet and net neutrality under the Federal Communications Commission (better known as the FCC) and how internet providers have created a monopoly.

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If net neutrality ended, this would be a common sight for internet users

So, you may be wondering, what is net neutrality? Net neutrality is the idea that internet providers and the government have to treat all data on the internet the same. This means, in practical terms, a company such as Netflix, that accounts for nearly 34 percent of all internet bandwidth in the United States during peak hours, would get the same Internet speeds as a small start-up video streaming service that has five active users. The internet has worked this way forever and there have been no problems with it, but the internet providers have been making big pushes to stop net neutrality in order to make more money. Verizon even resorted to suing the United States government on the grounds that the government has no right to enforce that the Internet remains dynamic and open for everyone. The FCC, as a result of pressure from these large providers, proposed the idea of creating a “fast lane” and “slow lane” on the Internet based on how much a company pays to the internet providers.

This reminded me of the Melian dialogue by Thucydides that we read earlier in our political theory class. The main idea of the story can be expressed in one quote, “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” This quote relates perfectly to what would happen to less powerful companies that can’t afford to pay the price to get into the “fast lane.” Forum websites cannot afford to pay the same price as a multi-billion company such as Facebook or Google. It doesn’t allow small start-ups the ability to get past the tech giants, so the poor companies must suffer while the powerful continue to make more and more money.

The FCC website had an open forum comments page that allowed people to express their approval or disapproval of net neutrality. John Oliver, at the end of his segment, urged everyone to go out and comment on the FCC website in favor of keeping net neutrality and a number of websites participated in an internet slowdown day to show users what their favorite websites would be like if they were put in the “slow lane.” There were so many comments in favor of keeping net neutrality that the FCC website actually crashed from so much traffic at one time. As a result, they agreed to, at least for now, keep net neutrality. I think this is proof that the idea the weak suffer what they must only applies to the tangible world and not the virtual world. The “weak” mass of less financially equipped companies and Internet users were able to stop the major internet providers from getting their way.

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One comment

  1. mcarozza · November 29, 2014

    I feel like presently there are many interesting parallels to the Melian Dialogue, especially when discussing issues involving big corporations. Big corporations so often win and squash the weaker companies, it was nice to see a change in that pattern in regards to the net neutrality debate that you wrote about. However, in this case the “weak” players were not fighting alone (as opposed to the Melians, who were fighiting completely on their own), they had many Americans fighting for net neutrality along side them (so much so that it appears that the majority of people were in favor of keeping net neutrality.) So maybe now the “weak” companies aren’t really the weak players in this issue at this point, since they have the bulk of Americans on their side now. So maybe the strong really do always prevail; in this issue over net neutrality, the “weak” players became the “strong” players.

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