Throughout history, in almost every country and culture, there have been people who own more property and wield more power than most. There have been thousands of rationalizations for this. Rich, powerful people were thought to deserve their wealth and power because they were born to other rich, powerful people. Or they were more industrious. Or they’re job creators. Or they are better educated or more sophisticated. Or they’re brilliant innovators. Or even that they're anointed by some gods or other. The list goes on and on.
But all of these rich, powerful people have always had the power to make the rules of whatever society they’re in. And they’ve always used that influence to make rules that keep themselves rich and powerful. It’s a simple matter of self preservation.
Ok, all that’s obvious. Likewise, its obvious that among the most useful tools for keeping the status quo are mass media. If you can actually control what people know about what’s going on, and what they think about it, you can pretty much call the shots. The first thing rebels do in a coup d’état is seize television and radio stations. Freedom of the press is great if you own a printing press.
But, in the late 20th century, something weird happened. Technology drastically reduced the cost of publishing, broadcasting, etc. Suddenly, almost anyone, or at least ordinary middle class folks could publish their own newspapers, or books, or even create television programs to distribute on the Internet.
Of course, most of these home-made newspapers and books and TV shows are crap. That’s the downside of democracy. There’s just a flood of stuff, and no one in a position to decide what’s good or bad except you, the consumer.
And here again, technology comes to the rescue. Traditional publishers and broadcasters had marketing and advertising budgets they could use to make you aware of their products, and lure you to them. Now, there are Web sites that tell you what’s hot … what lots of people are looking at. There are supposedly open user ratings and recommendations that can help you decide what media to consume. And there are advanced techniques for deciding what’s similar to what, so if you liked book A, you’d probably also like movie B.
All of this seemed like a revolution in communications. For the first time in history, readers, listeners and viewers could choose from millions of things to read, listen to or watch. You weren’t limited to what the major media outlets decided you should be exposed to. And any random person could develop a worldwide audience for his or her pictures of cats, or stuff on his rabbit or whatever.
On Tuesday, a U.S. appeals court for the District of Columbia denied the FCC’s attempts to force big Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon to provide that service equally for all Internet sources. As a result, Verizon or Comcast could, for example, decide that by paying an extra fee, Google could ensure their searches are faster than Microsoft’s BING. Or vice versa. Verizon or Comcast could just give it to the highest bidder. Or they could block your access to the Huffington Post or al Jazeera or whatever else they decided not to like. If your corner store doesn't carry the newspaper you like, you can always go elsewhere. That's not so easy with Internet providers.
So, in effect, this ruling says that once again, rich people get to decide what you can or can't see.
This could be fixed in a number of ways, involving new laws, reclassifying Internet services, etc. But of course, laws are slippery, and they are also shaped by those same rich, powerful people.
Thomas Jefferson was right.