Nathaniel Borenstein is Chief Scientist for Mimecast and co-creator of the MIME standard, for which he is sometimes called "the father of the email attachment." He has been an Internet researcher, activist, author, standards maker, and entrepreneur since 1980. He has worked for IBM, numerous startups, and three universities. He remains guardedly optimistic that the Internet will do more good than harm.
Today is an Internet-wide day of action to save net neutrality.
It's disturbingly hard for some people to understand its importance. Net neutrality can seem arcane and irrelevant, even though the consequences of these rules will be evident for everyone.
Fortunately, I have a friend who is a researcher in advanced temporal quantum physics technology. As a favor to me, she was able to retrieve a copy of my diary from the year 2024, a dark time when the absence of net neutrality has had consequences bad enough to be obvious to anyone. Below is a series of excerpts from that diary, dispatches from a world without net neutrality.
January 12, 2024
Today I broke down and got myself a second home Internet service. Our existing Comcast subscription lets us watch Netflix, but we needed a Verizon connection to watch Hulu. It seems absurd to spend $200 per month on a second ISP, but I'm afraid that my marriage might not survive another argument about whether we should have Hulu or Netflix.
Of course, now that I've done this, they may finally negotiate an end to the great Verizon-Comcast war, and I'll have to pay a termination fee of at least $500 to drop one of the ISPs. But I'm not holding my breath. The war seems to be good for business at both companies. In fact, rumor has it that the whole war is just for show.
The truly annoying part is that Verizon doesn't sell Hulu separately; we have to get a "tier" of applications and sites that include Hulu. This means we're not only paying for a bunch of stuff we don't want, but we're actually paying a second time for some unwanted services we already pay Comcast for.
There is a silver lining, however: We would never have paid for a second Internet service just for streaming music, as we've both been reasonably happy with Pandora. But now with Verizon, we can get Spotify, and it's wonderful to be able to hear The Beatles again.
I just wish that, given all we're paying, there was at least one channel or service free of intrusive advertising.
January 22, 2024
Today my granddaughter called about a paper she's writing for her telecommunications class. She wanted to know if things were noticeably different, for ordinary people, back when there were more than two ISPs. I tried to explain what it was like in the old days, when sites like Wikipedia were free for everyone, without any ISP surcharges, and news sites from across the political spectrum were equally accessible.
"But we get a good range of news today, Grandpa, from Fox News on the right to the Wall Street Journal on the left," she said. Those news sources are free with her Internet connection, but her ISP doesn't tell her about the option of subscribing, for a fee, to Mother Jones, National Review, or any of the dwindling number of independent news sites she's never heard of.
February 5, 2024
I never believed it possible, but there's actually going to be less access to porn on the Internet from now on! President Falwell has persuaded (or perhaps coerced) both American ISPs to restrict all access to porn sites to the hours of midnight through 5 AM, local time. It's obviously an election stunt to shore up Falwell's liberal base -- whoever the National Patriotic Front nominates will undoubtedly advocate a total ban on porn.
April 11, 2024
Within the last month, three of the biggest remaining independent news sites have gone out of business. Now I'm largely reduced to guessing which rumors to believe. When my generation dies off, will people even remember that there used to be more diverse opinions?
July 17, 2024
It's been really festive at our house this week: We've invited all our friends with only one ISP to come watch the Olympics, since neither ISP carries all the events. Most of the guests are chipping in to help pay the $698 per household charge for watching ($349 for each ISP). It's kind of like the 1950's, when all the people on a street would converge, for big events, on the one house that had a television.
July 20, 2024
I'm steamed. We got a letter from Comcast today, saying that we had too many people at our house watching the Olympics, and we owe them another $1,199. Apparently they really do monitor us, at least enough to know how many different devices are connecting through our routers. I suspect they monitor a good deal more than that.
August 22, 2024
I ran into my old friend Einar Postel today. He seems well, and as wildly innovative as ever. His latest invention is a new Internet application that uses a direct brain interface to allow two people anywhere on Earth to communicate telepathically.
Today he was thrilled, as he just finalized a deal with Comcast: If he pays them $5 million per year, they won't block his new service. "Now all I have to do," he said, "is make a similar deal with Verizon, and then raise enough money from investors to cover the annual $10 million plus the actual costs of launching the business."
September 5, 2024
Talk about a battle of the titans! Comcast found a loophole in its deal with Netflix, and has slapped an extra $5 monthly fee on each Netflix user, every penny of which goes to Comcast. The CEO of Netflix is threatening a lawsuit, but his options are limited, as Comcast's exclusivity contract extends another three years, and early termination would cost Netflix half a billion.
If Comcast put the loophole in the contract deliberately, it was a masterstroke, and Netflix needs better lawyers.
October 28, 2024
Call me old-fashioned, but I find it disturbing that Comcast only carries news channels that favor Falwell and the Republicans, while Verizon carries only stories that favor Bannon and the National Patriotic Front. Most people aren't as fortunate as me, and only have one ISP or the other. How are they supposed to make an informed decision about their vote next week?
November 6, 2024
The election was a disaster from any perspective. In the absence of independent media, no one can be sure who won. The Comcast media universe has declared Falwell the victor, while the Verizon universe reports the opposite. I watch both, and it's stunning how differently they report the news.
I'm not sure what's going to happen next, but it can't be good. Bannon claims Falwell is mobilizing the army against him, while Falwell says Bannon is about to launch a violent revolution. And the vast majority of Americans, who only have one ISP or the other, can't possibly understand or explain the dispute.