Regan: Public Pixels

Net neutrality is a social issue for Millennials.

by Joseph Coit Regan | 5/17/18 2:05am

Phones are windows to a digitized world, and people are on either side. The beat of a finger tapping is staccato, like a modern-day attention span. Memory has become a camera that is never turned off. Meet the Millennials.

And they are frequently misapprehended. Older generations distinguish between online and offline, using or not using a device. Millennials are not online because they are never offline. The distinctions of older generations are Millennials’ dispositions. They see the world differently, as every generation has, but they also exist more genuinely online. Older generations perceive the internet as a means of communication; Millennials perceive it as a place for self-expression.

1969 was the year that the first computer-to-computer message was sent and received. AIM, MySpace, Gmail chatting — these were all services that, more or less, were sent and received. Then Facebook created a space that not only allowed people to communicate online, but exist online; and all that has followed seems to be a part of whatever force it is that has subtly enlarged the world pixel by pixel until people’s conception of themselves extended past their finger tips.

The internet has become a public space. Regulations, such as the decision on December 14, 2017 by the Federal Communications Commission to repeal net neutrality, misapprehend wireless communication to the detriment of those who use it most frequently. The repeal of net neutrality was right to no longer regulate internet providers like utilities, but wrong to instead regulate them like the interstate.

Back in 2014, the Obama administration lifted a long-standing prohibition on tolling on interstate highways. The roads needed to be fixed, but the money was lacking because it came from the federal gas tax. Ironically, fuel-efficient vehicles, which the Obama administration encouraged, are the cause of potholes even as they are a part of the solution to holes in the stratosphere. Under the Trump administration, Pai repealed net neutrality in order to bring back jobs and make the internet more open. Both approaches to problems related to public goods do not resolve the central problem and make everyone suffer as a result.

Pai’s reason for action shows that he thinks of the internet in terms of economics. He should be thinking in terms of social spaces. Pai was motivated to act by, among other concerns, the fact that capital investment in internet service providers declined by 5.6 percent, or $3.6 billion, from 2014 to 2016. During that time, about $67 billion was invested in tech companies solely by venture capital firms. Pai also claims that he is bringing back the 75,000 to 100,000 jobs that were lost by internet service providers. Net neutrality was repealed in 2017, the same year in which there were 627,000 unfilled jobs in the tech industry. If Pai is concerned for the economy, he should be tailoring regulations to the people driving it.

The vote on Wednesday to roll back Pai’s “deregulation” is an affirmation of the Millennial perception of the internet as a public space. Pai, along with many others of older generations, misapprehended the defining pose of the 21st century: the slouch over a device. Where a person of Pai’s age might see bad posture, Millennials recognize that they are holding a portal. There should not be gatekeepers to these portals with the power to demand payment for their services. The freedom to use the internet, like the freedom to drive on the interstate, should have reasonable regulations that do not unduly impinge on personal freedom.

The debate over the internet should be about the upkeep of a public place and public good. Treating it as an economic good or service is like perceiving the value of photos posted on social media to be defined by how many likes they received. The internet has become a means of marketing oneself — people are now known as much by how they act online as how they act in person.

Everyone decides whether their actions online or offline are calculated or genuine. Millennials are more tech-savvy because their online presence is a social act, not a series of tasks to be learned in order to achieve certain objectives. The government should recognize this social place for the pixels it is by regulating it with personal wellbeing in mind and not pocketbooks.