January 16, 2014

A loss of net neutrality is a loss for literature


Verizon prepares to throttle down your access to the gif reservoir.

Verizon prepares to throttle down your access to the gif reservoir.

Tuesday, the DC Circuit Federal Court of Appeals threw out the Federal Communications Commission rules maintaining net neutrality. Unless the FCC can find an internal work around, or unless they successfully argue their case in the Supreme Court, net neutrality is dead in the U.S. — and with it any place online for indie bookstores, indie publishers, or adventurous, unusual, surprising books. It sounds grandiose, but net neutrality is an important battle, and we may have lost it even before most of us knew we were in a fight.

If you’re a pixel-stained technopeasant like so many of us here in the Melville House offices, you’re familiar with the concept of net neutrality. But maybe your expertise is strictly in the field of cat captions (an important skill!) or maybe you, like others in our office, care only for issues directly related to the best way to murder trees and print graffiti on their pulped corpses.

Either way, it’s worth reading the Times Bits Blog refresher about net neutrality. You can also find a good interactive timeline of the history of the struggle so far here. In short: net neutrality is the concept that telecommunications companies who transmit this thing called the internet should do so equally for all content. Just as some phone calls are not given more or better bandwidth than others, different sites on the internet should be treated equally. Certainly customers should be allowed to pay for faster connection to the content, but different content should not be metered differently. The opponents of net neutrality are generally the big telecom companies—Verizon, Time Warner—and whichever politicians they’ve sicced the most lobbyists on in any given week. They’d like to be able to charge not only for the access to their pipe, but be able to sell you a faster, greasier pipe. (Telecoms are gross.)

As laid out by Cory Doctorow over at BoingBoing , the current FCC rules about net neutrality—the ones just struck down by the appeals court—were drafted under intense pressure from the telecoms, and were a capitulation to them from the start. The solution is for the FCC to recognize internet access as a ‘Title 2 telecommunications service’ like phone calls and enforce net neutrality accordingly. But what if the FCC doesn’t do that? From the Times:

Now, the decision on how to proceed is up to Tom Wheeler, the new [FCC] chairman, who was appointed by Mr. Obama but who has worked as a lobbyist for the cable industry and wireless phone companies. Mr. Wheeler has said he supports an open Internet, but he also has expressed willingness to allow companies to experiment with new ways of delivering Internet service.

If Wheeler takes a pass, lets net neutrality fall by the wayside, what does that mean for booksellers and books generally? Well like most deregulation fought for by big corporations, this will be a mixed blessing for those living under it: shit mixed with another color of shit.

For a long time telecoms maintained that, in the words of Verizon general counsel Randy Milchsaid, “Net Neutrality is a solution in search of a problem.” But as reported by Alternet’s Timothy Karr, during arguments this summer for the case just decided, “in response to Judge Laurence Silberman‘s line of questioning about whether Verizon should be able to block any website or service that doesn’t pay the company’s proposed tolls, [Verizon’s lawyer HelgiWalker said: ‘I think we should be able to; in the world I’m positing, you would be able to,’ and ‘but for these rules we would be exploring those types of arrangements.'”

“Those types of arrangements” being the type in which those with cash—Amazon yes, indie bookstores no, (though even Jeff Bezos is in favor of maintaining net neutrality)—would have their content put through faster and more easily than others. Smaller sites—smaller than a retail monstrosity worth $122 billion— would be squeezed out, made more difficult or expensive to find for casual users. As we’ve discussed before, Amazon and other big retail sites are good at selling you what you already know you want, but terrible at helping you find something new. Amazon’s success is necessarily bad for smaller, stranger, lesser known books. To some extent that’s counteracted now by a rich sea of smaller sites willing to review anything and everything, to promote their favorite genre of slug erotica (yes that is a thing), to squabble and to shout about every book, even our own humble offerings. But when those sites become harder or more expensive to find?

Most indie bookstores already operate with the thinnest of margins. Only an exceptional few earn much from web sales. And without net neutrality they stand to earn next to nothing.

Indie publishers, likewise, will have a much harder time finding a casual audience. Maybe this isn’t your favorite blog, but I’m pretty partial to it, and I’d hate to see it pushed to the back of the bandwidth line.

If you agree that the broadest possible variety of books is a necessity for a healthy literature, and if you agree, too, that books with no readership, books unread, simply don’t count as literature, then I think you’ll agree that all readers have a stake in the battle for net neutrality. A battle we may soon lose.


Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.