Internet users and activists are launching the final phase of a summer campaign to protect “net neutrality” in the Trump era. Under the Obama administration, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to classify Internet service providers (ISPs) as “common carriers” that, like telephone lines, are required to distribute service equally. If the FCC reverses this classification, as it intends to, the big telecom and cable companies that connect you to the Internet could block, slow or prioritize access to Web content based on who is willing to pay. They could even censor political content. This favors powerful companies with deep pockets, and threatens to squash both innovation and the democratic spirit of the Internet.
The net neutrality issue has reignited a debate that is as old as the Internet. Once limited to tech-savvy users with access to networked computers at academic institutions, laboratories and government agencies, the Internet has become a fundamental part of nearly everybody’s life.
Billions of new users have come online over the past two decades. But the commercial interests that have enabled their entry have also threatened the core values of openness, freedom of expression and access that were so critical to the Internet’s early pioneers. During the 1990s, public policies dramatically transformed the Internet by encouraging its privatization. As is true today, these changes sparked activism as individuals grappled with the tension between the technology’s commercial potential and its democratic ideals.
The net neutrality debate is not just a reiteration of the same debate, however. It has forced Internet companies and users to confront the consequences — both positive and negative — that two decades of privatization have wrought on our digital public sphere. Commercialization has brought the digital world to the masses. But as a result, a handful of companies wield great influence over what we see online, and we are bombarded by spam, ads, and other costs of a profit-driven space.
An early battle for the Internet’s soul erupted in spring 1994. Just after midnight on April 12, two immigration attorneys unleashed the world’s first major commercial spam, flooding the early Internet with an unwanted advertisement for their services, incurring the wrath of thousands of members of online communities.
Years before streaming video, apps or even Web browsers, there was Usenet, a decentralized system of online discussion groups.
Few people had Internet access at home, which meant that, starting in the early 1980s, new users found Usenet at the start of every academic year when freshmen accessed networked computers for the first time on campuses.
As newcomers arrived, seasoned users provided guidance and explained “netiquette,” an evolving set of crowdsourced norms that set community standards and managed flows of information. Usenet was designed with discussion groups dedicated to specific subjects in threaded discussions — sort of like public bulletin boards. Users learned to avoid off-topic posting to prevent the squandering of limited resources, since dial-up connections were slow and expensive. By staying on topic, the community ensured that users downloaded only the information they wanted over their slow, pricey connections.
In the early 1990s, commercial providers such as CompuServe and America Online began to bring home users online, and the U.S. government decided to shift management of the Internet’s physical architecture to commercial firms. The early structure of the Internet was noncommercial, supported by decades of public investment. The decision to privatize management of the Internet’s backbone, a project undertaken with little debate or opposition and completed in 1995, reflected the Clinton administration’s belief that private investment would spur innovation and bring new users online.
Already in September 1993, the commercialization of the Internet on the consumer side unleashed what was known in early Usenet groups as “eternal September.” Instead of adjusting to small increases in population as they had each September since the early 1980s, the Internet’s communities now had to accommodate a constant flow of millions of new users.
Martha Siegel and Laurence Canter, a married couple who both practiced immigration law in Arizona, saw the growing community of online users as a huge potential market. By the stroke of a key, they used a computer program to simultaneously post an ad for their services in each of 6,000 newsgroups in under 90 minutes of connection time. It cost them almost nothing.
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They were seeking customers to pay them to help enter the first U.S. green-card lottery, set to take place that summer. They posted the message not only in immigration-related discussion groups but also in groups dedicated to basketball, Star Trek and everything else, egregiously violating Usenet’s community norms and netiquette.
Millions of users woke up the morning of April 12 to find Canter and Siegel’s green-card lottery ad posted independently in multiple, unrelated discussion groups — the first widespread commercial spam message.
The excessive posts — labeled spam, after a Monty Python sketch — ate up bandwidth and slowed people’s Internet connections. To access information on Usenet, users logged on to download the groups that interested them. Since the green-card lottery ad appeared in every newsgroup, users paid to download it repeatedly, even though it was off topic and unwanted. Although Canter and Siegel hadn’t broken any laws — it would take years for the federal government to pass anti-spam legislation — they had violated the carefully negotiated rules of netiquette designed to prevent a misuse of shared resources.
Users were furious — and concerned. Unwanted commercial activity threatened their community’s norms and the experience of users. Usenet, they thought, should not be a space for indiscriminate advertisers to clog up discussions and consume more than their share of bandwidth.
Online and in real life, users fought back. They sent large email files to overwhelm Canter and Siegel’s ISP and telephone dialers to fill the firm’s physical answering machine tape. They overloaded their fax machine, sending “junk” faxes of black sheets of paper to use up ink and expensive thermal fax paper. They called and faxed hundreds of complaints to the American Immigration Lawyers Association, asking them to censure the spammers. From the perspective of longtime users, Canter and Siegel’s ad, by spamming the discussion groups, had infringed on everybody else’s ability to speak and participate online.
But the lawyers would not be shamed, and they asserted their right to spam as a matter of free speech. They claimed their ad had worked, and soon launched an Internet advertising company. The subsequent ascendance of commercial websites was swift: In 1996, several dot-edu websites were still among the most-visited sites. By 1997, all 20 of the most popular sites belonged to private, commercial companies.
The arrival of new commercial Internet service providers and websites seemed to serve the open spirit of the early Internet by broadening access to many new users, including those without tech knowledge. But commercial actors such as Canter and Siegel also threatened that spirit by trampling the norms that had for years made Usenet functional and ensured that users shared resources equitably. No longer a close-knit community, guided by agreed-upon rules of conduct, the Internet was transformed.
In short, the Internet revealed the democratic potential of Clinton’s privatization policies but also the consequences of allowing commercial interests to shape its public sphere.
And although the Internet has become vastly more commercial than the Usenet groups of the 1980s and early 1990s, users are still battling for a say in how Internet resources are distributed and shared. The fight for net neutrality is a campaign to ensure that commercial interests do not overtake those of ordinary people. By pushing for Internet service to be treated as a public utility, millions of users — along with commercial Internet companies such as Netflix and advocacy organizations such as Fight for the Future — have sought to prevent broadband and wireless companies from being able to prioritize the content they deliver to users.
Like the early Internet activists who tried to battle commercial spammers for violating community norms on Usenet, one concern of today’s Internet users is that the private interests of just a few ISPs will undermine the democratic promise of the Internet. Today, when so much of our lives are online, the stakes are that much higher.