Have you ever wondered what it was like growing up in a post-Communist country in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall? Well, I’ll tell you, it was very American. Looking back on my childhood in Bulgaria during the ‘90s, I find countless cultural touchpoints to the experience of the average American kid at that time. I drank Fanta, read DuckTales, watched the animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, wanted to be like Mike, and had a massive crush on Jennifer Love Hewitt. As my country searched for a new identity and direction, it found a willing and active role model in the United States, the world’s biggest political and cultural exporter.
The first URL I ever saw was www.nba.com
I recount this experience now — which will be familiar to countless nations around the world — because this week we finally have a chance to celebrate our global Americanization. On Wednesday, the US government did something right for a change — at this point, it’s impressive when it does anything at all — by deciding to wholeheartedly endorse net neutrality. As egotistical as the USA can often seem, this decision is one with truly global implications. The Netherlands, Finland, and other countries may have stronger commitments to universal broadband access and net neutrality, but they don’t have the world’s ear the way that the US does.
I don’t believe that the US embracing net neutrality will automatically enforce the principle around the world, but I am confident that it couldn’t get very far without American approval. The United States is deeply invested in setting the world’s policy agenda, whether it be through legal means such as the copyright-enforcing Trans-Pacific Partnership (which is still being negotiated) or extra-legal ones as used to undermine the Castro regime in Cuba. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA and the Five Eyes spying network also show a country that’s actively manipulating and exploiting the internet in destructive ways, forcing others like Brazil to consider breaking off from the global network. American control over the internet is deliberate and a recognition of net neutrality by this hegemon can only be a good thing.
Net neutrality reverses a track record of the USA screwing up the internet
One of the all-time favorite sayings of British economists is that when America sneezes the whole world catches a cold. It’s a cliché that was truer in the 1990s than it is today, with China steadily ascending in global economic importance, but it remains valid when it comes to the internet. The future of the internet is shaped by decisions made in the United States. While the policymakers on the east coast set the rules on how we access it, the tech industry clustered on the west coast determines what we do with it. The iPhone was proudly designed in California, and so were most of the apps and services through which we use the web on a daily basis. Twitter, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon all have their headquarters on the western American coast, and it’s in their boardrooms and idea labs that the next evolution of the web will take form.
The internet is the future, whether in the cloud or on the web
US corporations are even more expansionist than their government, and their pursuit of constant growth has produced the cultural and social homogenization that characterized my youth. The Economist has a Big Mac Index of relative purchasing power around the world because a Big Mac is something you can buy pretty much anywhere.
I experienced American culture through physical things like Nike sneakers and Levi’s denims, but the next generation of Bulgarians, Malaysians, Chileans, and Nigerians will likely have their first encounter with the USA via the web. There’s a reason I am writing and you are reading this in English, and with all my respect to web inventor and proud Briton Tim Berners-Lee, that reason doesn’t reside in England. The web and the internet are in America’s hands, and this week’s decision to treat access to them with neutrality — even when limited to American borders — is a good one for the whole world.