Article by Jane Stringham | 771 words
Online shoppers know the feeling well. Let’s paint a web-browsing picture: your most coveted dress from such and such e-retailer shows up just to the right of your Dictionary.com inquiry about the difference between affect and effect. It must be destiny—a sign that the fates of your closet and a glittery gold mini-dress are inextricably linked. At least, that’s what advertisers and search engines, like Google, who track your browsing history, would like you to believe. Sadly, your wallet and the infamous search engine fates are more intertwined than those of your New Year’s Eve plans and that gold dress. Invasive? Sure.
And yet, the plot has thickened even further in recent months. Internet users everywhere—online shoppers, bloggers, writers and small e-retailers included—each face even more attacks on how they access, connect and freely express thoughts, dreams, personal styles and business ventures via the Internet.
Net Neutrality Defined
Since its fledgling days as a foreign land unconquered by e-explorers, the Internet has existed as an entirely open and equally accessible terrain. Tim Wu, Columbia University professor in the Media Law Department, coined the term “net neutrality” in 2003 to denote Internet users’ ability to browse cat-shaped brooches on Etsy, research an undergraduate thesis on the riveting history of typewriters and stream musicals on Netflix in an equal manner. That is to say, in a “neutral net,” broadband and cable providers must treat all Internet traffic equally.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and its Chairman Tom Wheeler, however, have proposed a new set of rules that would permit broadband providers to treat some types of traffic preferentially. As such, that carefully curated collection of prized cat brooches stored in Etsy may come at a price—one of which is decreased loading speed. Only those vendors with the means to market their product, pay the Internet toll and merge into the fast lane will show up first on a browser’s feline-inclined web search.
Etsy Sellers, Bloggers and Other Internet Users Defend Net Neutrality
Etsy sellers, among others that would be relegated to the slow lane, have put up a fight in recent months. The popular blog-building site WordPress.com, for example, participated in the “Internet Slowdown” on September 10, 2014. Bloggers that utilize the site activated a “Fight for Net Neutrality” plugin that replaced a few posts on their WordPress blogs with a “slow loading” spinner. The exercise intended to emulate an Internet divided into “slow lanes” and “fast lanes,” where Comcast regulates how quickly users may access particular styles of content. The spinner also provided a link to BattleForTheNet.com, which serves as a resource for protests, involvement and information in support of net neutrality. Site visitors can still sign a letter to Congress advocating open access to the Internet.
Etsy, an e-retailer platform that supports creative small businesses, understands that its continued growth depends on such a democratic Internet; it spreads this and similar messages to its vendors in order to inspire activism. Althea Erickson, Etsy’s director of public policy, offers a blog post replete with site statistics and a discussion on how they may be negatively affected by threats to net neutrality. Although Etsy hosts over 25 million products, it remains a low-margin business. The founders’ values and passion for creative small businesses fueled their decision to charge only $0.20 for a listing and take 3.5 percent of every sale. Keeping its listing costs low separates Etsy from other e-commerce sites.
Such costs would be unrealistic in the face of regulated Internet traffic, undoubtedly relegating Etsy to the “slow lane,” where photos and product listings would load at a delayed pace. The online shopper previously enamored by handmade, cat-shaped brooches may grow impatient with the slower pace at Etsy and visit another site, and the crafty brooch-maker would lose her sale. And yes, this brooch-maker is likely female: 88 percent of US Etsy sellers are women who run micro-businesses from their homes, and they enjoy the power to do so through a democratized Internet. As Erickson states, a democratized Internet provides access to entrepreneurship for “a whole new Cohort of Americans, and Chairman Wheeler’s proposal threatens to undermine this progress by creating a pay-to-play environment that gives even greater advantage to entrenched interests.”
Etsy and other digital rights activists continue to create content and stage protests in support of net neutrality. Part of the reason why the Internet has proven so revolutionary is that innovative startups can rise up when the playing field is relatively equal. But if the Internet favors only the big companies, we may get only more of the same rather than new ideas and services.
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