Lessons from the Net Neutrality Lobby: Balancing openness and control in a networked society
Powell, Alison (2009) Lessons from the Net Neutrality Lobby: Balancing openness and control in a networked society. In: Proceedings of the WebSci'09: Society On-Line, 18-20 March 2009, Athens, Greece.
As much of everyday life becomes mediated by networked Web technologies, our communication, decision-making, and social lives depend on infrastructures designed, built, and maintained by a variety of stakeholders. This has made the structure and regulation of the internet, for example, into a battleground between owners of network infrastructure who claim that increased traffic increases their costs and that they must begin to filter network traffic and charge higher prices for network access. On the other hand are advocates who claim that equal access to the infrastructures of the web is important enough to be considered as an extension of the free speech rights so culturally important, for example, in the United States. On the other are infrastructure owners who want to maintain the right to control pricing and business models. Between 2005 and 2007, this conflict of interpretation exploded into competing efforts to legislate for, or against, “Net Neutrality” in the US Congress. However, as network operators understand, neutrality is a technical principle, not a rule. How did the principle of network neutrality become a political issue? Further, what insights can the Net Neutrality story provide Web scientists about the broader social outcomes of the necessity to balance openness and control within information networks? Net Neutrality In technical terms, network neutrality refers to the principle that packets are not prioritized based on their origin, destination, or content. Such a ‘neutral’ network does not distinguish between packets originating from a video and packets originating from an e-mail. When most internet traffic moved over telephone lines, the principles of common carriage that had regulated communications since the age of canal shipping applied: no operator could prioritize or impede the transfer of information regardless of its origin, destination, or content. This neutrality is widely perceived as being a structural feature of the internet (Barratt and Shade 2007; Sandvig 2006) and has arguably facilitated the Web’s peer-produced, participatory knowledge commons (Benkler, 2006), since a neutral network infrastructure does not differentiate between different types of content. In theory, this means that any Web content is as accessible as any other type of content: individual blogs should load as fast as mass-media outlets’ web pages on a fully neutral network. In academic and policy circles in the U.S., debates have raged about the economic and social impacts of neutral networks. McTaggart (2006) claims that technically, “the internet has never been neutral.” Wu (2003) argues that in an age of media consolidation, a principle of non-discrimination is required to maintain the distributed network architecture that supports an open Web. Other scholars argue that national or international legislation mandating neutrality would be “biased” (Frieden, 2006). At the time of writing, the “Internet Freedom Preservation Act 2008” was still in front of the US Congress. This bill, which will likely pass in a future Democrat-controlled Congress, would legally prevent certain types of throttling or control of internet networks. While symbolically important, this law may not ultimately have much influence over the entire Web, since it would only apply to customers of American Internet Service Providers. Still, the political success of the U.S. lobby demonstrates how the infrastructure of the Web can become a political controversy. Saving the Internet The introduction of this bill was partly the result of a coordinated lobbying effort by the Save the Internet coalition, a non-partisan group that included such strange bedfellows as Google, the National Rifle Association, the Peer-to-Peer foundation, and the American Civil liberties association. The coalition used “Net Neutrality” as a catch-all term referring to the political aspects of internet structures and capacities. In particular, it framed neutrality as essential to maintaining free speech and consumer choice. The Save the Internet website reads: “On the Internet, consumers are in ultimate control -- deciding between content, applications and services available anywhere, no matter who owns the network. There's no middleman . . .the free and open Internet brings with it the revolutionary possibility that any Internet site could have the reach of a TV or radio station. The loss of Net Neutrality would end this unparalleled opportunity for freedom of expression” (SaveTheInternet, 2007). Of course, when not supporting free expression, the principles of Net Neutrality support content-driven business models for the Web, including Google’s distributed web-based platforms. Openness and Control The calls for a neutral Internet presume that neutrality will enshrine in law the principles of open systems, particularly neutrality. A politicized view of Net Neutrality confounds network management principles with political principles, connecting network management principles with political concepts like free speech. Galloway (2004) describes how ideals of freedom are now mediated by structures of protocol: instead of a modernist system of hierarchy, society now experiences a relational system where different protocols control the rights of interlinked individuals. This theoretical perspective illuminates two important aspects of the politicization of Net Neutrality. First, the very fact that a technical protocol regulating the Internet could become such an important political controversy indicates the social importance of the Web and the Internet, and the relational frameworks they provide. Second, and more problematically, the regulation enshrines openness as equivalent to freedom, leaving aside the necessary complexities of managing networks that depend on protocol. As Web scientists know, balancing openness and control is one of the key requirements for creating systems of collaboration. The lessons learned from the politicization of Net Neutrality may help to make better decisions about how to balance openness and control in other aspects of Web Science, including negotiations of trust and reputation, as well as security and privacy.
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