On the Myth of Net Neutrality
Few issues stoke as much controversy, or provoke as shallow of analysis, as net neutrality. Richard Bennett’s recent piece in the MIT Technology Review is no exception. His views represent a swelling ideological tide among certain technologists that threatens not only any possibility for democratically controlling technological change but any prospect for intelligently and preemptively managing technological risks. The only thing he gets right is that “the web is not neutral” and never has been. Yet current “net neutrality” advocates avoid seriously engaging with that proposition. What explains the self-stultifying allegiance to the notion that the Internet could ever be neutral?
Bennett claims that net neutrality has no clear definition (it does), that anything good about the current Internet has nothing to do with a regulatory history of commitment to net neutrality (something he can’t prove), and that the whole debate only exists because “law professors, public interest advocates, journalists, bloggers, and the general public [know too little] about how the Internet works.”
To anyone familiar with the history of technological mistakes, the underlying presumption that we’d be better off if we just let the technical experts make the “right” decision for us—as if their technical expertise allowed them to see the world without any political bias—should be a familiar, albeit frustrating, refrain. In it one hears the echoes of early nuclear energy advocates, whose hubris led them to predict that humanity wouldn’t suffer a meltdown in hundreds of years, whose ideological commitment to an atomic vision of progress led them to pursue harebrained ideas like nuclear jets and using nuclear weapons to dig canals. One hears the echoes of those who managed America’s nuclear arsenal and tried to shake off public oversight, bringing us to the brink of nuclear oblivion on more than one occasion.
Only armed with such a poor knowledge of technological history could someone make the argument that “the genuine problems the Internet faces today…cannot be resolved by open Internet regulation. Internet engineers need the freedom to tinker.” Bennett’s argument is really just an ideological opposition to regulation per se, a view based on the premise that innovation better benefits humanity if it is done without the “permission” of those potentially negatively affected. Even though Bennett presents himself as simply a technologist whose knowledge of the cold, hard facts of the Internet leads him to his conclusions, he is really just parroting the latest discursive instantiation of technological libertarianism.
As I’ve recently argued, the idea of “permissionless innovation” is built on a (intentional?) misunderstanding of the research on how to intelligently manage technological risks as well as the problematic assumption that innovations, no matter how disruptive, have always worked out for the best for everyone. Unsurprisingly the people most often championing the view are usually affluent white guys who love their gadgets. It is easy to have such a rosy view of the history of technological change when one is, and has consistently been, on the winning side. It is a view that is only sustainable as long as one never bothers to inquire into whether technological change has been an unmitigated wonder for the poor white and Hispanic farmhands who now die at relatively younger ages of otherwise rare cancers, the Africans who have mined and continue to mine Uranium or coltan in despicable conditions, or the permanent underclass created by continuous technological upheavals in the workplace not paired with adequate social programs.
In any case, I agree with Bennett’s argument in a later comment to the article: “the web is not neutral, has never been neutral, and wouldn't be any good if it were neutral.” Although advocates for net neutrality are obviously demanding a very specific kind of neutrality: that ISPs do not treat packets differently based on where they originate or where they’re going, the idea of net neutrality has taken on a much broader symbolic meaning, one that I think constrains people’s thinking about Internet freedoms rather than enhances it.
The idea of neutrality carries so much rhetorical weight in Western societies because their cultures are steeped in a tradition of philosophical liberalism. Liberalism is a philosophical tradition based in the belief that the freedom of individuals to choose is the greatest good. Even American political conservatives really just embrace a particular flavor of philosophical liberalism, one that privileges the freedoms enjoyed by supposedly individualized actors unencumbered by social conventions or government interference to make market decisions. Politics in nations like the US proceeds with the assumption that society, or at least parts of it, can be composed in such a way to allow individuals to decide wholly for themselves. Hence, it is unsurprising that changes in Internet regulations provoke so much ire: The Internet appears to offer that neutral space, both in terms of the forms of individual self-expression valued by left-liberals and the purportedly disruptive market environment that gives Steve Jobs wannabes wet dreams.
Neutrality is, however, impossible. As I argue in my recent book, even an idealized liberal society would have to put constraints on choice: People would have to be prevented from making their relationship or communal commitments too strong. As loathe as some leftists would be to hear it, a society that maximizes citizens’ abilities for individual self-expression would have to be even more extreme than even Margaret Thatcher imagined it: composed of atomized individuals. Even the maintenance of family structures would have to be limited in an idealized liberal world.
On a practical level it is easy to see the cultivation of a liberal personhood in children as imposed rather than freely chosen, with one Toronto family going so far as to not assign their child a gender. On plus side for freedom, the child now has a new choice they didn’t have before. On the negative side, they didn’t get to choose whether or not they’d be forced to make that choice. All freedoms come with obligations, and often some people get to enjoy the freedoms while others must shoulder the obligations.
So it is with the Internet as well. Currently ISPs are obliged to treat packets equally so that content providers like Google and Netflix can enjoy enormous freedoms in connecting with customers. That is clearly not a neutral arrangement, even though it is one that many people (including Google) prefer.
However, the more important non-neutrality of the Internet, one that I think should take center stage in debates, is that it is dominated by corporate interests. Content providers are no more accountable to the public than large Internet service providers. At least since it was privatized in the mid-90s, the Internet has been biased toward fulfilling the needs of business. Other aspirations like improving democracy or cultivating communities, if the Internet has even really delivered all that much in those regards, have been incidental. Facebook wants you to connect with childhood friends so it can show you an ad for a 90s nostalgia t-shirt design. Google wants to make sure neo-nazis can find the Stormfront website so they can advertise the right survival gear to them.
I don’t want a neutral net. I want one biased toward supporting well-functioning democracies and vibrant local communities. It might be possible for an Internet to do so while providing the wide latitude for innovative tinkering that Bennett wants, but I doubt it. Indeed, ditching the pretense of neutrality would enable the broader recognition of the partisan divisions about what the Internet should do, the acknowledgement that the Internet is and will always be a political technology. Whose interests do you want it to serve?
One of the biggest challenges that I think social scientists should be committing themselves to solving is the question of how to enable large-scale social change. Our age is rife with injustices: growing income inequality, an increasingly brutal police-prison-industrial complex, among others. At the same time, these injustices are frustratingly chronic. Positive change, if it has occurred at all, has been ploddingly slow. I think that a big contributor is the unwillingness or inability of average people to imagine change as possible, a necessary condition for them to even begin to advocate for reform. Yet, as anyone who is has read the commentary on a critical article on these issues has probably seen, many Americans seem willing to spare no effort in trying to justify the status quo as either inevitable or the best of all possible worlds. As Steve Fraser argues in The Age of Acquiescence, building a more equal society will require attacking and reconceiving the narratives that today prop up the status quo.
Take college sports, arguably one of most egregiously unjust labor systems in the US. Nowhere else can you find people laboring—indeed college football is like a fulltime job—and inflicting long-term damage to their bodies for little reward. The NCAA generates a billion dollars in revenue, all the while players are contractually barred from reaping the fruits of their labor. As others have pointed out, the “NCAA is a plantation, and the players are the sharecroppers.” That many, if not most, of the prospective players hail from poorer, black regions of the country makes the system seem even more destructive. Football combines start to bear an eerie resemblance to the auction block when one reflects on all these similarities.
The response to such observations always seems to be the same: Don’t these players voluntarily sign the dotted line on the contract? Aren’t they free to do otherwise? The rhetoric of choice is one of the most pernicious discourses today, one that is routinely mobilized to prevent people from digging too deep into systematic inequalities. It is a discourse that tries to eliminate deep thinking about the innumerable coercions faced by most people by reframing them all as choices. Consider Paul Ryan’s recent bizarre claim that cuts to Medicaid and the elimination of the ACA wouldn’t eliminate people’s healthcare: Such people would be simply “choosing” not to have it any longer. The transformation of the inability to pay for something into a free choice is just one of the daftest—though politically expedient—outcomes of choice-based rhetoric. In the context of college sports, it ignores that players coming out of the most deprived areas of the country typically have few other opportunities for a college education or many other routes out of poverty. The rhetoric of choice projects the latitude of choice available to only the most affluent citizens onto everyone, regardless of what their lives actually look like.
The case of college sports also illuminates how the mere possibility of success, no matter how infinitesimal, can lead people to tolerate otherwise intolerable circumstances. Compare it to the Black Mirror episode “15 Million Merits.” Work in the society depicted in this episode is unmitigated drudgery: Citizens’s work lives entail endlessly pedaling on stationary bikes. Their only respite comes from a constant connection to an array of entertainment possibilities, and their only hope for a way out lies in winning Hot Shot, an America’s Got Talent-like game show. The metaphor in “15 Million Merits” couldn’t be clearer: Clawing one’s way out of the doldrums of working in what David Graeber has labeled “bullshit jobs” is largely a roll of the dice, dependent on the caprice of those who do have the power to decide. The hosts of Hot Shot sit with an air of superiority, judging who is worthy and who is not—much like a few of the hosts of the show Shark Tank. Like college ball players who must subject their bodies to four years of strain for a shot at an NFL contract, some workers acquiesce to an unjust working arrangement partly because they too are caught up in dreams of getting to be one of the lucky few to strike it rich.
I’m not the first to note that Americans are limited in their ability to think critically about class because of a belief that inequality is okay as long as they have a chance of being on the right side of it. A common quote, routinely misattributed to John Steinbeck, laments how “the poor [in America] see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The underlying narrative that success invariably comes to those who show grit and determination adds to the rhetoric of choice to prevent critical questions about the sources of poverty. I will never forget the panicked look on a student, who in a class discussion about economic fairness, tried to claim that if he were parachuted into Haiti that he would be successful in six months; while uttering something horrible, he nonetheless seemed to be straining under an immense load of cognitive dissonance, attempting to resolve the conflict between a narrative that gave him hope about his own future and its implication that Haitians are somehow poor because they don’t know how to work as hard as middle-class white people.
In any case, also noteworthy in “15 Million Merits” is how those who, for whatever reason, are unable to handle the strain of cycling all day are treated. They are widely abused, distinguished by particular clothing, and targeted for mockery in violent video games and on television game shows—that society’s equivalent of Jerry Springer and Cops. Citizens of this imagined society, much like our own, are partly driven to labor—often to the detriment of their mental and physical well-being—by the fear of being poor and mocked and the belief that perhaps they too can achieve a state of transcendent affluence. Who gives any thoughts to the hundreds or thousands student athletes who, once injured, are often deprived of their scholarship? Often not earning a degree, or perhaps not one that is worth anything, and carrying a potentially disabling injury, such as cervical spine damage, once phenomenal athletes on the way to stardom become just another impoverished nobody, another one of the “takers” denigrated in contemporary conservative discourse.
It seems to me that achieving a more just American society will not be possible without the simultaneous demise of these poverty justifying narratives. Not only will new narratives be necessary, but such narratives will need to be uttered by the right people. As great as it is that attendees of Ivy League universities and participants in urban art collectives have developed counter narratives to those that today justify status quo inequalities, it seems unlikely that such narratives will ever resonate with average citizens. A recent video by The Onion makes much the same point in satirically depicting a Trump voter whose mind was changed after reading 800 pages of queer feminist theory. In my mind, much of the humanities and social sciences are not worth the paper they have been printed on, if they cannot be persuasively conveyed to non-academic—indeed, uneducated—audiences. Unfortunately, many of the academics I know are too busy denigrating Trump voters for being ignorant to consider how things might actually change.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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