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Internet should be an utility

Have you heard of Parler? In case you haven't, Parler is (was?) a social network for ~~racists~~ the alt-right that gained notoriety this week. Having allegedly been used to coordinate the storming of the U.S. Capitol, its app was removed from both the Google Play Store and the Apple Store and then pulled from Amazon AWS the next day. With no hosting and no app, Parler has been effectively killed by the tech giants.

The swift removal of Parler from the internet is the incident that, I hope, will bring together the right and the left under a common cause: that the internet should be considered a public utility and that Internet Service Providers (ISP) should be regulated as such.

A public utility is a service that everyone needs (think water and electricity) and where regulation is needed because the high cost of entry discourages competition (so-called natural monopolies). It has been argued that internet should be included in this list too - can you imagine your current daily life without internet? ISPs, on the other hand, are happy setting their own prices and policies, and have resisted for years efforts in this direction.

Parler was effectively removed from the internet by the tech giants under the argument that, as private companies, they have the right to refuse service to anyone they don't want to work with[1]. But ISPs are private companies too, and therefore free to do the same to you - if your live in a country with no ISP regulation, your provider has a right to stop giving you internet access and tank your business with little repercussions.

And here is where I hope both "the left" and "the right" will see that their interests overlap. The left should support ISP regulations (and net neutrality!) because they believe, as Germany and France put it, that free speech should be governed by law and not by tech giants. The right, on the other hand, should realize that they gave tech monopolies all the cards and that they are the only ones getting kicked out of their social media accounts. If the President of the United States himself can be banned from Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Youtube, then no one is safe.

Why ISPs?

You might have noticed that everyone I linked above talks about regulating Amazon, Google, and/or Apple. I, on the other hand, would suggest that we focus on ISPs instead for the following reasons.

First, because the internet parallels the history of the telephone almost perfectly: a communication technology that catches on and that, while not biologically required (unlike water and heating), plays a critical role for life in a society. And ISPs are not "like" the telephone companies, they are the telephone companies.

Second, because it makes sense that internet should be provided to everyone without discrimination: imagine a world in which your shower stops working because you said in public that you prefer bottled water, or where your telephone is disconnected because you bad-mouthed someone during a conversation.

And finally, because it's the last step down the technology chain at which you can still survive: there are alternatives to Amazon AWS, and if they won't have you then you could still plug your own server and keep going (ask the Pirate Bay). But if the only ISP in town denies you service, what are you going to do, move your family to the closest town? Ask people to send you letters?

So here's my proposal: make the internet a public utility and, in exchange, give ISPs immunity from what their customers do with it. Let's bring the internet into the 21st century.

Footnotes

[1] Leaving illegal discrimination aside, which doesn't seem to be the case here.