Net neutrality is one of business and government’s biggest ongoing debates. But even though our lives are increasingly influenced and determined by online interactions, many people have no idea what the phrase means.
Maybe net neutrality–the idea that the Internet should be equally fast and accessible for all traffic–sounds boring. Or too arcane. But for advocates of an open Internet, stomachs dropped when, earlier this month, the FCC sought to redefine what that fairness in the system meant. Their proposal, released earlier this month, left open the option for what many have labeled an Internet “fast lane,” in which Internet service providers like Verizon could provide faster or more reliable service to web sites and services willing to pay a premium fee. The other option, as Fast Company writer Chris Gayomali put it earlier this month, would be to regulate broadband like a public utility. What’s at stake: The freedom of information to arrive on your screen. What if, say, Google could afford fast speeds, but a nonprofit investigative journalism outfit couldn’t?
A recent Pew Research Center report put a point on how little the debate seems to be engaging the public. Out of the 203 articles that even mentioned net neutrality this year, 139 were in the same six papers. Twenty-five out of nearly 3,000 TV news programs discussed the issue. That’s 0.8%.
The story’s very different on Twitter, where nearly all the 650,000 tweets on the topic expressed support for an open Internet. Then again, Twitter’s not even close to a representative sample of the U.S. population.
A separate VentureBeat poll revealed similar findings. Of 714 people surveyed through Google, nearly 60% reported that they didn’t even know enough about what net neutrality was. (And these are people already savvy enough to spend enough time on the Internet to take Google surveys.)
So where does that leave us? Well, it leaves journalists with more of a responsibility to report on tech stuff that isn’t the sexiest app or most titillating group selfie. But it’s also a strong reminder: Some of the most important fights for public resources aren’t made in front of the public. They’re made in fluorescent-lit corporate conference rooms, on the least engaging parts of C-SPAN, or in tiny, esoteric debates that only circulate among a handful of people. And sometimes there’s only mainstream news about them when it’s too late.