Net Neutrality as Generational Struggle

Natalie Smolenski
9 min readDec 15, 2017
The FCC temporarily evacuates the scene of the Net Neutrality vote in response to a security threat.

Yesterday the FCC voted 3–2 along party lines to repeal Net Neutrality rules. The decision has prompted intense and varied commentary, but it has not frequently been framed in terms of a fundamental generational divide in the United States. This article places the world-historical importance of a freely accessible internet in the context of a debt economy in which younger generations must purchase access at the price of spiraling interest paid to older generations. In other words, the internet has functioned as an infrastructure of enfranchisement for generations who could not expect it through traditional channels. This enfranchisement occurs not simply in terms of cultural belonging or political activism, but in education (increasingly self-directed and lifelong) and entrepreneurship in a world where gatekeepers are keen to prevent the young from disrupting a manicured, hierarchical equilibrium. The internet has of course enfranchised not only younger generations, but many marginalized groups; however, this article focuses on a generational analysis because it points to a structural faultline in American society that goes frequently un- or misrecognized.

On November 24, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article entitled, “Rise and Fall of a Law School Empire.” It tells the story of an entrepreneur, Don Lively, who set out to give underserved minorities access to law school by opening a for-profit institution, Florida Coastal School of Law, that would accept candidates rejected elsewhere. Don, a white professor, hoped his school would help close the representation gap in the legal field. Initially, small class sizes and skilled teaching led to great results: in 2009, 83% of first time test-takers passed the bar, compared to a Florida state average of 80%.

Investors then got involved and attempted to scale the operation by opening up multiple branches in underserved cities under a network called InfiLaw. As the economy recovered, however, applications to law schools dried up. InfiLaw schools felt pressed to keep admissions (and revenue) up by continuing to lower admissions standards. To cover the costs of tuition and living expenses, many of their students relied on Grad Plus, a 2006 federal student loans program which allows students to borrow unlimited amounts of money for graduate school.

By 2016, fewer than one in five students at the Charlotte School of Law, a North Carolina branch of InfiLaw, were able to pass the bar exam and get a job that required a law degree. North Carolina revoked its license, and it shut down in August 2017. The majority of its students have left with a combination of no job and exorbitant student debt. Their debt has since been sold by the federal government to private collectors for pennies on the dollar.

The tale of InfiLaw resembles nothing so much as the sub-prime mortgage crisis. In an effort to extend home ownership to poor and middle class Americans (and make large profits from doing so), banks drastically lowered standards for taking out mortgages, leaving millions of people with homes they could not afford. When debts came due, these families lost their homes and found themselves under mountains of debt, much of which was paid by the taxpayer through bank bailouts and by bank shareholders through bank settlements.

Education in the US is an expense akin to buying a house — one which the vast majority of college-age Americans simply cannot afford without taking out the equivalent of “education mortgages.” However, unlike mortgage debt, education debt cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, thanks to a 2005 federal law designed to prevent students from gaming the federal student loan system. Unfortunately, what has happened instead is that schools — public and private, for-profit and nonprofit — have been gaming the federal loan system by raising tuition costs at a much faster rate, contributing to the vicious cycle of increasingly unaffordable education paid for by greater and greater individual debt.

The Millennial generation came of age at the nexus of these two debt crises: the mortgage crisis, which destroyed their employment prospects just as they were entering adulthood, and the education loan crisis, which has saddled them with more debt at an earlier age than any generation in American history. Many in the Baby Boomer generation — and the vast majority of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of the US government are Baby Boomers — simply cannot understand this predicament. An especially illustrative comment came from Senator Orrin Hatch, who posted on Twitter on November 17:

I grew up in a shack with a Meadow Gold Dairy sign for a wall. I worked as a janitor to pay for law school. I believe in opportunity because I’ve lived it. And that’s what we’re going to deliver with #TaxReform. #utpol

Such a career trajectory is simply be impossible today. The average tuition for a public legal school in the US is $17,000 per year, which a janitor making the national average annual salary of $23,000 could never afford. The tax reform plan Senator Hatch is touting would give this janitor back about $200 annually (in the House plan) or about $350 annually (in the Senate plan) — hardly enough to enable her to attend law school. She is far more likely to take out a federal Grad Plus loan to attend a for-profit, private law school with a much higher tuition and an uncertain trajectory.

For Millennials, then, the back and forth of “pro-” and “anti-” government regulation debates that characterize American party politics are of little relevance. This is because both corporations and the state collude to extract the maximum amount of profit from them through debt interest. Rather than paying debt forward by building a social infrastructure of care to launch their children into the world, the Baby Boomer generation instead chose to structurally treat their children as a source of their own future profit. This is what Malcolm Harris has argued in his recent book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. In short, he writes, “Millennials were the first generation raised explicitly as investments.” Investments for their parents — their perpetual creditors — not investments for themselves.

This generational debt peonage has, unsurprisingly, created a cycle of dependency upon parents, which those same Baby Boomers now see as a sign of inexorable moral decline in their own children. Most of this moral hysteria has been displaced, however, upon the most significant infrastructural innovation separating Boomers from younger generations: the Internet. While structural analysis of the material predicament of Millennials circulates mostly within that generation’s social circles, articles on the dangers of social media and smartphones are almost guaranteed to go viral across generations. Smart phones and social media have been repeatedly identified as the main culprits behind rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among adolescents, which have been rising since the mid-2000’s.

Yet this blame game doesn’t present a nuanced enough account of the inexorable role the internet has played as a space for social identity formation, learning, free expression, and self-discovery for Millennials and younger generations. For every story about cyberbullying, there is another story, usually untold, about a kid from a small town who didn’t commit suicide because he found other kids like him online. Someone who discovered an educational or professional opportunity or help for a baffling medical condition who wouldn’t have otherwise. The internet has also fundamentally relativized local social norms in a way that is largely irreversible (barring a terrible black swan event). It is no longer possible to hide abuses of power in the village by making its worldview seem inevitable. Despite the destructive psychological impact of reputation gamification through social media, no evidence exists that it is any more vicious than the forms of reputation gamification that existed among previous generations. If anything, the Internet has been revealing those aspects of human society that have previously been much easier to hide — for good and for ill.

So pervasive is the influence of the internet for digital natives that free and unfettered access to it is increasingly presumed to simply be a human right. And this belief is shared not just by internet users from younger generations, but by their entrepreneurs and capitalists. The major internet-based businesses that have grown up since the 1990’s have largely been founded or led by Gen-Xers and Millennials; their success as businesses is inexorably tied to an open internet. “Net Neutrality” — equal access to all content on the internet — has emerged as a rallying cry for many in these groups.

Although Net Neutrality also refers to FCC rules promulgated under the Obama administration, which mandate that ISP’s provide equal access to the internet, the principle behind these rules is what appeals to Millennials. They support Net Neutrality not because they love government regulation, but because they correctly recognize that the business incentives of large Internet Service Providers — Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Charter — correlate restricting access with profit. Not only that, but American ISP’s, mostly founded and run by Baby Boomers, are functional monopolies in particular geographical areas based on longstanding agreements they have with the state. There is little incentive for them to broaden access or improve their services. Younger generations not only expect the internet to be available to everyone, but fast and unencumbered. The business model of ISP’s militates against this outcome. This is why some tech companies have taken the goal of widening internet access into their own hands, most prominently Google through its Project Loon.

Of course, the big tech companies also turn access into profit; however, they do so on the back-end by allowing users to pay in data to generate a data-based profit ecosystem for industry and government, rather than on the front end by charging for it, as ISP’s do. The point here is not to valorize one business model over another, but to indicate that presuppositions about internet access are fundamentally different for younger generations. While Net Neutrality won’t directly address the structural predation practiced against younger generations by banks, governments, and educational institutions, it forms the conditions of possibility for a new kind of social fabric from which solutions might grow.

The self-assertion by the anti-competitive status quo through coordinated efforts by ISP’s and the FCC to do away with Net Neutrality rules signals nothing so much as older generations attempting to preserve their increasingly outdated business models. This generational struggle also recently came into relief on Cyber Monday, when America’s largest tech companies made an appeal to the FCC to preserve the Net Neutrality rules. But the Boomer-era ISP’s have their men in office now (yes, all three FCC Commissioners who voted to repeal Net Neutrality were men), who exercise power for their benefit. Obama’s appointee for FCC Commissioner, who became Trump’s appointee to FCC Chair, Ajit Pai, has had only one agenda: doing away with Net Neutrality. And he succeeded in orchestrating a repeal vote on December 14, 2017. Whether or not that decision will be implemented remains to be seen: over a dozen states’ Attorneys General immediately sued the FCC to preserve the rules.

In short, Millennials — and younger generations — are being structurally preyed upon by both corporation and state, both still largely run by their parents’ generation. While the biggest companies of their generations also transform internet access into profit, at the very least they share the belief that access itself should not be gated. The internet has been a source of unparalleled empowerment for this generation, and this is in large part what makes it a target for those who don’t understand its value or see it primarily as a threat to their own incumbency. The unfortunate truth is that the centralized structure of the traditional web makes access restriction by powerful social actors possible — even likely to succeed. The Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP), which monitors restriction of internet access around the world, is recording rapidly-accelerating actions by states and corporations to prevent the free use of the web. For this reason, the main thrust of the next generation of internet innovation is occurring under the rubric of decentralization. Ultimately, preserving equal access to the internet is most likely if no central authority is empowered to make decisions about access in the first place. The FCC’s Net Neutrality vote is only another battle in this ongoing struggle.