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?
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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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