I was once sitting next to a friend who was learning to program, and the internet went down. She asked me if she could still compile her code even though there wasn't any internet. Now, to someone who knows how the internet works and how compilers work, this seems like a pretty silly question. But I shuddered at the idea of a future where the answer could very well be "no, you can't compile unless you have an internet connection."

For the moment, programmers enjoy the luxury of having most of their tools work offline[1], though that's already for the "mainstream." Electronics companies are toying with the idea of "always on" consoles. Siri's natural language functionality does all of its heavy lifting "in the cloud". Smartphones and tablets in general seem pointless without access to a WiFi network or a data connection.

There is evidence, however, that developers may not be safe for much longer. Dev machines and IDEs are moving away from personal laptops and towards the internet[2]. Entire companies (read: startups) grind to a halt when GitHub goes down. And it's already obvious that the next wave of important technologies (cryptocurrencies, self-driving cars, drones, and the Internet of Things) is going to require constant or near-constant connectivity.

ISPs will only become more powerful as these new technologies cross the chasm[3] and are adopted by the mainstream. If you need the internet to send someone money, drive to work, or turn on your heater, those who control access to the internet end up with vast amounts of influence and leverage.

Which is why the back and forth over net neutrality is completely crazy. There has been plenty of discussion about this, but if you need a short refresher on net neutrality, see footnote[4].

If you think net neutrality is just a debate about whether Netflix should pay a little more for its bandwidth consumption, you're wrong. This is a debate about whether the Internet remains an open, level playing field. This is a debate about whether a handful of companies will be allowed to shape (or outright destroy) the next wave of technology companies. If it isn't clear, let me say it again: as a society, our Internet dependence is already massive, and it is only going to get bigger with time. We MUST ensure that everyone is an equal participant.

Last week the FCC voted to move forward on their set of proposed rules for regulating internet traffic. Before the final decision, there's a period of time for public commentary[5]. As it stands, however, the plan allows ISPs to charge for "guaranteed fast lane." It does ban ISPs from intentionally slowing down other traffic, but that's not nearly enough. A huge difference in performance is inevitable as ISPs spend a majority of their resources improving the "fast lane."

If, like me, you think it is important that the internet remains a level playing field, now is the time to do something. Speak up.

There are several ways to do this. Start by reading the FCC’s proposal. You can (and should) also email the FCC with your thoughts at openinternet@fcc.gov.

Most importantly, you can participate in the public comment process by submitting your comments to the FCC. Use this simplified form if you would like to type out a short comment, or use this separate form if you’d like to attach a file with a longer comment.

It's all too easy to become a "slacktivist" in this day and age. I've certainly been guilty of not fully participating in the political system in the past. But I like to remind myself of a quote from Edmund Burke:

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Thanks to Jonathan Goldsmith for reading drafts of this.

[1] Can you imagine vim or tail refusing to work unless you were connected to the internet? Neckbeard hell.

[2] Nitrous, Cloud 9, Koding

[3] "Crossing The Chasm", a fantastic book on the adoption of new products. If you're not familiar with it, it's where the term "Early Adopter" comes from.

[4] Net neutrality is the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally. A megabyte is a megabyte is a megabyte. Makes sense, right? But some time ago, the FCC decided that companies like Comcast and Verizon transmitted information rather than "dumb" data, allowing them to moderate what flows through their system. The fear going forward is that the FCC will formally allow Comcast and Verizon to improve the speed of certain "information" while restricting the speed of others; that is to say, they'll make their own content faster, as well as content from companies like Netflix that have the money to pay them off, while throttling the speed of small startups and other entities that can't afford "premium" service. It's a nuanced issue, but many believe one solution would be for the FCC to classify ISPs as "utilities," essentially saying that they do indeed only transmit dumb data and cannot give certain traffic preferential treatment. Given the FCC's track record however, this seems highly unlikely, due to the outsize influence that ISP and Telco lobbies already have.

[5] Ultimately, we'll have to wait and see whether public sentiment is enough to move the FCC's opinions on this. It will be difficult, as public advocacy groups and ISP lobbies alike are waiting for the opportunity to file lawsuits against any FCC ruling. But we have to try.