Autistic Future
December 10th, 2017

The End of Net Neutrality

It is dif­fi­cult to keep up with even major devel­op­ments in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and pol­i­cy today. It can be easy to lose sight of appar­ent­ly small changes. One essen­tial thing to keep up with in the com­ing days and weeks is the like­ly demise of net neu­tral­i­ty. This is a grave threat to the kind of Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty most of us con­sid­er worth hav­ing. The pos­si­ble short-term impact on the best sites cater­ing to us could be extreme­ly dam­ag­ing. The long-term impli­ca­tions, while more insid­i­ous and hard­er to pre­dict, may be far worse. If you val­ue a diverse, vibrant Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty in the Unit­ed States, it is in your inter­est to spend some time this week pro­tect­ing net neutrality.

Net neu­tral­i­ty is the idea that one’s inter­net con­nec­tion treats con­tent from dif­fer­ent sources the same way. It is tele­com com­pa­nies pro­vid­ing access with­out try­ing to dic­tate what their cus­tomers see, just as pow­er com­pa­nies pro­vide the same ener­gy at the same rate regard­less of the brand of lap­top, microwave, or dry­er plugged into the wall. It helps new voic­es be heard and new com­pa­nies gain trac­tion in ways which might be impos­si­ble if those who are already rich and pow­er­ful can essen­tial­ly buy a month­ly sub­scrip­tion to hob­ble com­peti­tors. This issue should be of con­cern to every­one who val­ues inno­va­tion and growth, a point of uni­ty and agree­ment for peo­ple who empha­size civ­il lib­er­ties and peo­ple who empha­size the free market. 



It is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant to the Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty. If some sites can pay to be more reach­able than oth­ers, that will change the game of suc­cess on the inter­net. There will be new win­ners and losers, and the odds aren’t in our favor. Noth­ing in the Autis­tic blo­gos­phere has the mon­ey to com­pete with the likes of Face­book. The more Autis­tic peo­ple have to pay to com­pete in the mar­ket­place of ideas, the less we will be heard. 

If that hap­pens, the best case sce­nario is that our sites are slow­er, more clunky, and, con­se­quent­ly, less pro­fes­sion­al- and author­i­ta­tive-look­ing than before. Maybe read­er­ship declines slight­ly due to the has­sle. Worse, inter­net might come to work like cable chan­nel bun­dles, where peo­ple would have access to con­tent depend­ing on what plan they buy. The chances that our par­tic­u­lar niche, not espe­cial­ly pop­u­lar with the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion, would be part of afford­able bun­dles are low.

If we lose net neu­tral­i­ty, some blogs and sites may go under in the short run as own­ers decide that the effort to write what few­er peo­ple read or the cost of host­ing is not worth­while in this new real­i­ty. Autis­tic speech and expres­sion may lean more heav­i­ly on plat­forms that don’t belong to us, such as Face­book and Twit­ter. Those sites exist to turn a prof­it, and that objec­tive may not always align well with our needs, agen­das, and norms. 



The largest social net­works are not work­able meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion for every­one and have mixed records in their deal­ings with minor­i­ty groups. Face­book is noto­ri­ous for try­ing to insist that users oper­ate under their real names, some­thing not every­one active in the Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty on the inter­net is will­ing to do. That will take voic­es out of the con­ver­sa­tion and raise the odds that good con­tent will just dis­ap­pear if an exec­u­tive at a large social net­work finds it objectionable.

Those changes may be rapid, and they are like­ly to be pal­pa­ble and dis­turb­ing. Autis­tic peo­ple will be aware of it when much-loved blogs go dark. The worst changes, though, may be the ones we prob­a­bly won’t notice, the voic­es we will nev­er hear. Pro-neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty spaces are spread­ing, but they haven’t reached every Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty. Out­side of the largest, rich­est, and, often, the most pro­gres­sive towns, there may not be an ASAN chap­ter or unaf­fil­i­at­ed, local equiv­a­lent. There may not be an Autis­tic-run space, a com­mu­ni­ty rather than a sup­port group, for peo­ple who want to gather. 

If Autis­tic peo­ple liv­ing in Smith­field, North Car­oli­na, Post, Texas, or Eli­jay, Geor­gia find us, they usu­al­ly find us through the inter­net. The same may well be true of peo­ple in the most mar­gin­al­ized neigh­bor­hoods of large cities, where there is lit­tle access to for­mal diag­no­sis, and the vagaries of the pub­lic bus lines may make a social or advo­ca­cy group based across town seem as dis­tant as the sur­face of the moon. If net neu­tral­i­ty ends, the Autis­tic inter­net will almost cer­tain­ly shrink. The bea­cons light­ing the way home for peo­ple in the parts of the coun­try which are already the most under-served will dim. Few­er of them will find us. 

Few­er of them will find the lib­er­a­tion of the alter­na­tive to neg­a­tive views of autism and dis­abil­i­ty that we have to offer. There will be more inter­nal­ized ableism, more self-hatred, and, prob­a­bly, more of the untime­ly deaths which seem at least part­ly attrib­ut­able to those things. There will be less cama­raderie, less men­tor­ing, and less good advice. More peo­ple will have to rein­vent the wheel to find ways to com­pen­sate for their deficits instead of bor­row­ing good ideas from oth­ers, but indi­vid­ual Autis­tic peo­ple won’t be the only losers if net neu­tral­i­ty ends.

The com­mu­ni­ty will, col­lec­tive­ly, also suf­fer a griev­ous loss because net neu­tral­i­ty would wors­en the bar­ri­ers to par­tic­i­pa­tion for Autis­tic peo­ple who are poor, not geo­graph­i­cal­ly mobile, or tend to lack access to for­mal diag­no­sis. That will dimin­ish the diver­si­ty of voic­es in our com­mu­ni­ty. If our pres­ence on the inter­net shrinks, we will lose rur­al peo­ple, peo­ple of col­or, peo­ple from fly­over coun­try, immi­grants, LGBT peo­ple, and women. The Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty in the Unit­ed States will become whiter, rich­er, less nuanced, and less able to rep­re­sent and advo­cate for the many Autis­tic expe­ri­ences exist­ing and over­lap­ping in this country. 

If you think Autis­tic peo­ple who hap­pen to be born in the most run­down, over­looked parts of Flint, Michi­gan or unin­cor­po­rat­ed ham­lets in Appalachia could con­ceiv­ably have some­thing worth­while to con­tribute, if you aren’t ready to cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly give up on them, net neu­tral­i­ty is impor­tant to you. If you want an Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty which draws on many peo­ple’s back­grounds, gen­er­ates the kind of vibrant art and cul­ture that only aris­es from diverse influ­ences, and advo­cates effec­tive­ly for many dif­fer­ent peo­ple, you want a free and open inter­net. There may or may not be hope for that now, but it is too pre­cious to give up quietly.