What net neutrality and that dress have in common: They’re what the internet was meant to be

It’s actually all the colors.
It’s actually all the colors.
Image: AP Photo/Rui Vieira
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“You guys,” a friend tweeted on Thursday, “today was what the Internet used to be like ALL THE TIME.”

He was talking, of course, about “the dress“—the image of a garment that looked white and gold to some people and blue and black to others, or even looked different to the same people at different times of day, and drove what seemed like the entire internet crazy. BuzzFeed said its coverage of the dress garnered 41 million views in less than a day.

But the tweet might as well have been talking about that day’s decision by the US Federal Communications Commission to adopt strict “net neutrality” rules that treat the internet as a public utility. Both were expressions of the internet in its purest, most democratic form—the way its idealistic pioneers imagined.

Net neutrality means, in plain English, that internet service providers can’t censor stuff and can’t give preferential treatment (e.g., faster data speeds) to some stuff over other stuff. Without it, the power of governments and large companies to control what people see online, already considerable, would grow even stronger.

The dress was just an optical illusion. It became #TheDress because everyone could see it, and wanted to know what other people were seeing, and could find out, and tell each other, instantly. While websites vied to profit from their curiosity (and some succeeded hugely), they were just riding the wave. The wave itself was hundreds of millions of moments of direct, unmediated communication, the raw collective power of a society talking to itself—the internet as the ultimate public square.

This is the internet that net neutrality is designed to protect. It would, of course, be wonderful if as many people used it to try to solve poverty or global warming as went apeshit over a dress. But we’re glad we have it, all the same.

This was published as part of the Quartz Weekend Brief. Sign up for the Quartz Daily Brief here, tailored for morning delivery in Asia, Europe & Africa, and the Americas.