Even the Press’ relationship with the Internet is complicated!

The internet has transformed everything it seems, and one way in particular is how we collect new information from around the world. Whereas before the internet we trusted journalists and crack interviewers to sort the facts and extract truth from the mystery, today the internet makes it possible for everyone to access the torrent of information which used to be distilled for us at primetime each night. It might even be an actual addiction, absorbing so much digital news while seated as opposed to walking down the street to buy a copy of the analog newspaper.

News sources have wisely adapted to this trend rather than maintaining the old paradigms. The game had changed from the anchor and the paper to dishing as many sensational headlines per hour as possible. Websites are about dishing out as much information as possible, screens glow with tickers, numbers, and jargon, and social media correspondingly buzzes with the latest round of jazz. As each snippet is received by the agency, it is sent right out to the people as “urgent breaking news” and the like. This model may work if one were connected all the time so that enough of the story can be built up, otherwise the conversation is dominated by tone and not by reason. Per mainstream news sources, all of the information pieces are delivered as they happen and without the previous pieces — without the context!

Technology is one of those things which must be treated with respect and diligence. (The press should know – there is a reason there are so few “presses” anymore!) Technology is disruptive and can rapidly affect large groups of people in either positive or negative ways. Sometimes these impacts are intentional, and sometimes they’re unintentional. An excellent case study is the recent public debate over “net neutrality”. At stake is the abstract structure of the internet which will affect the experience of every user to some degree. There was talk about “fast-lanes” and deals with content providers. It seemed like it wasn’t quite what we wanted, but this was all very new and fast. Why was this an issue now? What was the underlying issue prompting this discussion?

That’s what was so frustrating for me to watch the debate over “net neutrality”; the question seemed to be “Should we or should we not do this thing which seems like a bad idea?” and not “Why are we even considering this bad idea and what alternatives could there be?” Where was the context? What were we even talking about? The amorphous “Internet”? How could the Internet be “too small” now? Why doesn’t this discussion make sense?

The debate raged for months and activists on both sides demonstrated. What the average internet user might have missed amidst all of the hubbub is that America’s internet infrastructure is ancient and largely adapted from spare parts. Most critically, the “last mile” which connects individual homes to the network is largely still delivered by coaxial cable. As in, the technology originally invented to carry television broadcasts laid in the 1960s and 1970s is now used to deliver streaming internet content in the 2010s.

Obviously, the amount of information being carried through those cables has increased considerably since they were first installed. As pioneered by companies like Hulu and Netflix, high definition content on demand is a service the internet can provide in a way that the television can’t. Engineers have done incredible things re-engineering the technology for higher bandwidth using existing infrastructure, but eventually you simply have to upgrade the wires. Or you could charge higher prices for first-class use of the infrastructure, and the more plebian customers may wait for the content to come to them! It is a businessperson’s work-around to the profit problem of an aging internet.

Alas, finally the day came when the decision was to be made by the decision makers and they decided that things were just fine the way they were vis-a-vis the law. Internet Service Providers were sent back to the drawing board, but not without a little bit of bitterness at having lost the public relations campaign. Perhaps one of the more unfortunate pieces I saw was an op-ed by Ms Carly Fiorina, a former executive of both Hewlett-Packard and AT&T, former US Senate candidate, and a potential presidential candidate, to boot! Here was someone who should have a fair amount of context and say something responsible about the choice that had been made by Congress.

But no! After establishing her credentials, she immediately draws false parallels (e.g. “Obamacare was bad, so is this decision.”), declares the end of innovation, and predicts the rise of internet prices. “Woah now! Why would prices go up?” you might ask. She provides usual answers such as “no competition, increased regulation, higher taxes,” which sounds like more of the same malarkey to me. But what was interesting was what she didn’t say. Earlier in the article she referenced the “Netflix problem“, about how Comcast and Verizon were demanding Netflix pay for network upgrades. Network upgrades? Are they necessary? Wouldn’t those drive up costs? Why wouldn’t she mention that the antique cables carrying the excess of information? Isn’t that part of the conversation?

Her final lamentation was that America up until now had the edge with 82% access to broadband internet, even beating out socialist Europe. Simple fact checking – using the still-neutral Internet – would indicate otherwise. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in June of 2014 estimated that the United States is ranked at about #16 in broadband penetration, and includes others above us such as Denmark (3), France (4), Norway (6), United Kingdom (7), Iceland (8), Canada (12), Sweden (13), and Finland (14). If those countries sound more socialist than we are, it’s because they are. And perhaps countries with even more dubious forms of government will rank higher than us soon, as the FCC just redefined broadband from 3Mbit to 25Mbit speeds. In other words: Americans who were getting broadband will no longer be getting lied to.

So, citizen of the world, what are you to do when those experts we should expect to be most informed and willing to make tough decisions on our behalf have the most basic of facts wrong? It is time we start watching your own information diets, and we should not be satisfied unless our sources provide us with wholesome perspectives.