Blue fibre optics
Photo by Wysz via flickr
The internet is a giant, sprawling exercise in democratic media. If you’ve got a connection, you have access to a greater store of human knowledge than a librarian at Alexandria could have dreamt of. Whether
you’re looking for Wittgenstein’s philosophy, a moon-landing conspiracy theory or The Polyphonic Spree, you can find what you want in a few seconds. It’s no wonder totalitarian states like Iran and China go to such lengths to restrict people’s online access.

But there are powerful groups much closer to home that want to turn the internet into a very different, and much more restricted, place. And they may be about to get their way.

We’re so used to the internet in its current form that it’s easy to forget how radically open it is. Compare it with Sky TV, where you pay a subscription for a basic set of channels and pay extra for anything else, whether you want music, Six Nations rugby or the latest Hollywood blockbuster. If you have a more niche interest, like Hungarian indie cinema, minor league football or antifolk, you’re out of luck. On the internet you just buy some bandwidth and do what you like with it, whether you want to share something or find a user who’s got what you’re looking for.

Currently all traffic on the internet is treated equally. You get the same speed whether you connect to YouTube, BBC, Wikileaks or Green Wedge. That’s called net neutrality. That data from any source get treated exactly the same by my service provider (ISP) and transfers at the same speed. But internet service providers, the huge corporations that provide broadband access, have realised they’re missing a chance to turn an even bigger profit. Under their proposed new system, wealthy organisations like Sky or Microsoft would pay a premium fee for a faster connection. The rest of us might have to pay to access sites offering the full-speed service. Peer-to-peer sharing, where you connect directly to other users over protocols like BitTorrent, could be effectively shut down.

Last week culture minster Ed Vaizey signalled his support for the corporations who want to end net neutrality: ‘We have got to continue to encourage the market to innovate and experiment with different business models and ways of providing consumers with what they want,’ he said. ‘This could include the evolution of a two-sided market where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service.’

What does this mean? It would destroy the principle of democratic access to the internet, giving power to wealthy corporations at the expense of the rest of us. It would create an unfair playing field between already established companies and new businesses who can’t afford premium access. Consumers won’t pay for services they haven’t heard of, and free trials will offer a hugely reduced service. How likely is it something like Spotify will work if the free service ran at half speed? And without that how would they get paying customers?

Under the new regime, music would be dominated by big labels who could pay for better connections. Smaller acts would lose their access to new audiences and wouldn’t have the bandwidth or exposure to build up a fanbase. Even on sites like YouTube premium accounts could be prioritised to the advantage of big labels over independent artists.

More importantly, access to dissenting and independent media could be restricted. Websites like Indymedia or Wikileaks could have their content slowed, or might require a separate subscription making them much less widely accessible. Below a critical volume these sorts of voices lose their ability to hold power to account. The mainstream media wouldn’t have to report on news like the Wikileaks Afghanistan and Iraq files if ordinary people had no way to access that data for themselves. Governments and media outlets with billionaire owners would be able to get their message across at high speed, with critical voices stifled.

Rather than encouraging innovation and new models of participation, as we are told capitalism is supposed to do, the loss of net neutrality would take us back to a closed, corporate dominated model. Think again of Sky TV, with its limited range of channels, handed down from on high. If Ed Vaizey and the corporate lobbyists get their way, the internet you’re using now could become a two-speed superhighway, with most of us stuck in the slow lane.

Want to do something about it? Sign the petition to keep the UK net neutral. Or join the organisation at the vanguard of protecting the independence of the internet, the Open Rights Group.

A version of this article first appeared on music and politics magazine Green Wedge