The general population seems to perceive the Internet as magic, and so does the FCC, making the topic of net neutrality difficult to discuss; therefore, as computer scientists, we must spread accurate and easily digestible information to the less tech savvy in order to ensure that society progresses in the right direction.
While I don’t often have debates over net neutrality with friends or coworkers, through working with people with varying levels of experience with technology, I have noticed that the internet seems sort of “mystical” to the average person. Just the other day, my former boss, an engineering professor I created a website for asked, “What function does hosting serve for a website?” This totally caught me off guard. “Um, you need hosting to… host the website,” I thought to myself. I had to basically explain how the internet worked just to answer the question properly: websites must be stored somewhere; the Internet is not like “space” – it is not a vast endless container in which websites just “float around” wherever they please; it’s made of computers accessing information on other computers, and therefore a website must be stored somewhere in order to be accessed.
Similarly to my former boss’ misconceptions, according to Erica Portnoy and Jeremy Gillula, “The FCC’s understanding of the Internet borders on the mystical, as if the Internet itself were some vaguely defined other realm that an ISP opens a portal to. But there is no other realm, only a collection of networks, including the ISP’s networks. There’s no Internet separate from accessing the Internet; the Internet is just machines accessing each other.” Based on the general population’s lack of understanding of how websites in general work, I’d venture to say their understanding of ISPs and net neutrality is similar to that of the FCC, which would explain why it doesn’t seem like a very big deal to most people. In my experience, whenever people don’t understand something, they are willing to trust the people making decisions to make the right one – which in this case is a big problem since the people making the decisions also don’t understand what’s going on.
Because of these conceptual muddles, it is important that computer scientists spread understandable, accurate information. Just as there are special days like “Hour of Code,” where programmers go to schools and teach children and teens about coding, there should be days dedicated to spreading information about basic tech topics. Promoting understanding is important not only for the sake of spreading awareness for cases such as net neutrality, but also for the benefit of the general population: jobs involving programming and technology are on the rise, while less-technical jobs are being automated. Having an understanding of how technology works, therefore, is an important part of societal progression. If we do not assist in educating the general population, we risk being set back by poor policy decisions, including but not limited to net neutrality.
“Net Neutrality.” Electronic Frontier Foundation, www.eff.org/issues/net-neutrality.