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Why Environmentalists Should Care About Net Neutrality


By Hannah Miller

Environmentalism as a field has progressed over the decades by expanding analysis of new areas of our society, from mining policy to manufacturing to agriculture. Areas of human life that were once considered outside the purview of environmentalism are now central to our thinking about how to create a saner, more sustainable and just culture: legalizing backyard beekeeping or banning BPA in plastics, topics that weren’t even on the radar a few years ago.

In order for environmentalism to continue to progress, we must include a new plank as central to our work: an Internet that is sustainable, democratic, and that is structurally adapted to facilitate and speed up the world-wide transition from fossil fuel to renewables.

Our world, and the future of our movement, is dependent on a green Internet, for both the communications and political work we must do, and the coming economic transitions.

So what is the Green Internet? Well, when you talk about the Internet, at first you think of the physical infrastructure: billions of computers networked together and sharing files (including thousands in the “server farms” operated by the giants: Apple, Google, Amazon, etc.).

Then there are the phone and cable networks, wireless towers, and handsets and laptops where we all join this network. So far, environmentalism has addressed the impact of this physical infrastructure, mostly as a critique of energy consumption. But the Internet is so much more than wires and computers – to reduce it to this is like saying our power system is just a grid that transmits electricity, without discussing mountaintop removal at one end or catastrophic weather events the other. What passes through both sets of wires has dramatic consequences, on both ends of the cable. What content is allowed to pass through the Internet – what corporations are allowed to buy or sell, and what information voters and consumers receive – is the most important matter.

When environmentalists or sustainability pioneers do “media work” now, we are usually trying to activate the public through existing channels; we need to go further, and shape those channels itself as seriously as we are re-working streets to be more bike-friendly.

As a massively powerful and hopeful communications technology, the Internet is still new, so it is still being formed right now. Historically, media technologies from the telegraph to radio have followed a similar pattern: they are invented as non-commercial forms, used by a niche, but when they become popular are co-opted by established business interests.

The Internet has already started going this way, and in fact, this is perilously close to happening: the Federal Communications Commission is currently proposing to change the Internet drastically to bias it in favor of corporate power, incentivizing Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon to feature and promote the Shells, Walmarts, and FOX News of the world. If we want the Internet to remain the viable organizing and educational resource needed for the vast challenges ahead in transitioning to a renewable society and a life-based economy, then we have to ensure that it remain free, open, and accessible to all.

The Internet is not a given. It is far from guaranteed to remain in its present, open form, a form that is inherently open to new, sustainable businesses looking to compete on an open playing field.

Unfortunately, the Internet is regulated without anywhere near the scrutiny that environmentalists are used. In comparison to the Environmental Protection Administration – which has the word “protection” in its name and which works from the assumption the public interest is its first priority - the Federal Communications Commission is far more beholden to corporate power, generally divving up available resources amongst bidders in a manner similar to the oil and gas lease auctions that Tim deChristopher went to jail protesting.

At one “public hearing” in Philadelphia recently, FCC officials closed the doors, asked in advance for a list of who was going to be in the room, and explicitly said that net neutrality couldn’t be mentioned. Such cronyism at an EPA hearing on the Clean Power Plan would be met by virulent protests.

If the FCC succeeds in its plan to crush net neutrality – the operating principle that has allowed the Internet to have democratized so many spheres of human life – we will end up with an Internet custom-built to replicate the patterns of consumption, waste, resource depletion, and political powerlessnesss currently brought to you by BP, Coca Cola, and the diamond industry. The Internet service providers you rely on to go online – particularly AT&T, Comcast and Verizon – are spending millions to make this happen, so they can start offering fancy high-speed Internet packages to giant corporations to deliver your captive eyeballs.

There is hope. Tomorrow, the California Public Utilities Commission will be voting on whether to stand up for net neutrality or not. If you take two minutes to click through, you could add your voice and tell them that this matters:

If you are outside of California, then please add your voice to the Fight for the Future coalition on Net Neutrality, here: www.fightforthefuture.org

There is much more to be said about the shape of the Internet and the media as seen through an ecological lens, and I hope this can be the beginning of a conversation. If you apply the principles of biomimicry to the media then you can imagine a system of vast cultural biodiversity; Nature stores her vast library of history and technology in DNA that is available to every cell on the planet. Universal access to information is a basic principle of biology!

Ecology must include the Internet as a policy area, and sustainable business leadership should lend its support; legacy corporate power already has tremendous competitive advantages, and a free and open Internet is the one place that alternative and benefit corporations stand a chance at reaching consumers. To move forward, we must all help green the Internet.

Hannah is a writer, editor, and advocate, writing and editing for publications including Triple Pundit, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, Shareable, and Salon. Hannah recently edited the new Biomimicry 2.0 handbook; Hannah served as program manager at ecoAmerica, a climate-change media nonprofit, and Cradle to Cradle, an NGO that helps manufacturers design sustainable products.

Image credit: Free Press, Flickr cc

3p Contributor

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