Entering the BBC today to talk about the net neutrality protests “supported by Amazon and Netflix and others”, I had a dilemma. How in three minutes can you give viewers worldwide a perspective which conveys that the motivations are valid – American fixed-line broadband is pretty rubbish – but what we were witnessing was the most powerful multinationals in the world flexing their muscles, a show of corporate strength. In Europe these companies are regularly said to be more powerful than any nation state.
Think about that for a second. If Pepsi Co launched a “day of protest” and wanted to enlist your help to weaken regulation, we’d give it short shrift. What if the banks, who sailed away from the financial crisis without too many scratches, had a “banking go-slow”? Literally: what if ATMs had spat out bills very, very slowly today, while the screen invited you to “show your support for open banking, and click here!” I can imagine the reaction. The fact that the giant internet platforms – Google and Facebook and Amazon – feel they can engage in it at all tells us something. (Even though access to cash is more important than access to Facebook: you can get by better, for longer, with no internet – apparently people once had to – than you could without cash.)
The figures are startling. Only last year did half of US census districts have access to two decent fixed-line broadband providers (defined as 25Mbps). That’s districts, not households. Eighteen months ago it was around 25 per cent.
The wrinkle is that I subscribe to neither of two strict views that I’m supposed to, in the childlike and simplified world of “net neutrality”.