I was supposed to be watching tennis. Instead, I had my neck bent at an uncomfortable angle, my fingers scrolling through a Twitter timeline that would prove to engulf my day and imbue it with a frenetic energy that, sitting on a couch hundreds of miles away, I had trouble controlling.
What happened in Charlottesville unfolded in real time, on Twitter and elsewhere, similar to other events that we now, months or years later, refer to primarily by their location — Ferguson, Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino — or the name of the victim. There are so many victims.
Yesterday, though, I had a sober thought amidst the chaos: that despite the divisive and horrific nature of the images being captured and conveyed across myriad channels, they were being captured by everyone, all at once, and disseminated through an open internet that does not discriminate of the type or origin of the content itself. Whether it was Twitter, Facebook, Periscope, Livestream or any number of platforms, no one was being prevented — no company or government stood in the way — from seeing the turmoil and judging for him or herself the verisimilitude of the claims therein.
On the other side of the argument — and this isn’t sexy, but it’s business — the recent ramp-up of competition in the wireless space in the U.S., led by T-Mobile, allowed people in Charlottesville to continue streaming without fear of enormous overage charges or punitive throttling. And that despite the concentration of people, we didn’t hear about any one network struggling to keep up with the strain of people hammering its core with a stream of video-intensive activities. The carriers performed as they were meant to: as dumb pipes, not distinguishing between perceived right or wrong, good or bad. That judgment isn’t for the networks to make, but for the people — and it was made, forcefully and with no ambiguity.
Other countries are not quite as lucky. Many protests, and the media covering them, are kept from the public because of repressive internet laws and governments that oversee, or even own, the providers themselves. They control the networks and the frontiers for debate and exchange of ideas, the social networks and the video platforms. The U.S., as divided and chaotic and, well, frustrating as it can often be, still protects the right to free speech and doesn’t impose restrictions or block the exchange of those ideas through the internet, which has become the primary source of such traffic — for the left and the right.
I abhor much of the imagery I saw yesterday. There is no place for Nazis, nor white supremacy, in the U.S. or anywhere in the world. Here in Canada, which is believed to be largely above the hate and division, the defiling of mosques and synagogues is a common occurrence. People of color and religious minorities are taunted and beaten, and, though less prominent, there is an intense, growing empowerment of white supremacists. No country is beyond what happened in Charlottesville, but an open and free internet allows regular people to see it and judge it for themselves.
If, a month ago, you sat by passively and did nothing during the Net Neutrality Day of Action, or criticized the movement as anti-consumer, think about how different things would be if your provider decided to side with one particular viewpoint or another, or if a carrier that also owned a media outlet decided that its message was the right one at the expense of, well, neutrality. This could happen if and when Title II is stripped away.