Neutrality exists only in theory – and we’re better off like that.
Any analysis of the impact of digital technology on our society starts with technology rather than society. It is built into the question: technology first, impact later. With this perspective, it may appear as if technology evolves in a vacuum, only to be released later and applied to the normal world. This attributes a lot of influence to technology: given the right circumstances, technology can be expected to create jobs and growth, but also new forms of culture and freedom for the oppressed. Or it could drive us toward a surveillance state, middle-class jobs lost to robots and hyper-capitalism with companies more powerful than states. Whether you ask a tech-head or a technophobe, the basic assumption is the same: technology impacts society.
The most recent example is the topic of network neutrality, which has been in the focus of policy-making in many jurisdictions in recent years. Again depending on who you ask, network neutrality is either the solution to freedom and democracy online, or the end of innovation and network investment. Either the Internet will end up with slow and fast lanes, further enforcing the winner-takes-all dynamics of the network economy, making bigger companies stronger and smaller ones weaker, or network neutrality regulation will stand in the way of digital life-and-death matters such as road safety management, connected or self-driving cars, remote surgery and other telemedicine applications.
If you thought network neutrality would promote competition, democratization and pluralism, think again. It’s a myth!
Network neutrality is based on the idea that infrastructure is independent from content. That may have been the case with the telephone networks of the twentieth century (often state-owned) and the cables distributing television. However, today we see content and infrastructure merging. Internet services make operating systems for mobile phones, invest in data centres and even offer high-speed cable. Device manufacturers operate software marketplaces where third party developers can only offer apps tailored to its specific hardware. Internet access providers develop content services and shape traffic to protect their business models. The celebrated end-to-end structure of the network is challenged by the walled gardens of apps and the expanding domains of cloud giants. And the network technology itself changes, with content delivery networks storing popular parts of the Internet’s content close to the user rather than on the original server. In contrast to this trend of centralization, there is the opposing trend of fragmentation: public Wi-Fi hotspots connecting users without involvement of telecoms operators. The machine-to-machine communication of the so-called internet of things which often use different communications channels than the regular TCP/IP-standard internet. Thumb drives with storage capacities far beyond the day-to-day needs of average users allow for swapping files in ‘meatspace’, the so-called ‘sneakernet’. And as increasing amounts of internet content is locked away behind passwords on the deep web, there is no longer one unified internet, but many. Service providers build their own infrastructure. Facebook’s ‘Internet.org’ is about bringing free ‘basic internet’ access to least developed countries. That’s right, you get access to some parts of the Internet without paying and that generously includes Facebook’s own service, but if you want the rest, there will be charges. Facebook experiments with new connectivity technologies like satellites, lasers and high-altitude long-endurance planes in order to make affordable Facebo— I mean, internet access available in faraway places. Google’s ‘Project Loon’ has a similar scope, but using high-altitude balloons. This is the extreme vertical (no pun intended) integration of content, services, infrastructure, subscription offers and monetization. In such a complex landscape, is a simple principle like network neutrality relevant for regulating technology?
Dogmatic network neutrality is sometimes called ‘packet fundamentalism’, staying true to the idea that every packet is created equal. Its followers must make some compromises to deal with harmful code, spam and perhaps child pornography, so the slide down the slippery slope is inevitable. But attend any internet conference and you will find that packet fundamentalism is still the norm, only balanced with some necessary exceptions. The irony is that packet fundamentalism sows the seeds of its own downfall. If we take it literally that every packet should be treated equal, the carriers cannot manage traffic to make sure lag-sensitive things like video streams and telephone calls travel well while delaying less sensitive content like email or file transfer. If there’s a bottleneck, it hits every packet equally. Your call quality will suffer and important signals like live medical information can be unnecessarily delayed. This is all well known from the case the telecoms have been trying to make in the net neutrality debate, but looking deeper, what about signals over distance? Let’s say I’m interested in vintage Americana concert videos but all the servers that carry that kind of content are located across the Atlantic from Europe. With packet fundamentalism, the risk is great that the video stream will be very bad and there’s no way around it. But bigger players with more commercial content can easily set up a server close to my location and won’t have to worry too much about crowded transatlantic cables. Or perhaps those videos can be uploaded to The One Global Video Service, which of course hosts local servers, which would also fix the problem.
See how the grass-roots theory of packet neutrality in fact promotes centralization and supports the dominant players’ agendas? If you thought network neutrality would promote competition, democratization and pluralism, think again. It’s a myth! Much better to have transparent rules that intermediaries must adhere to.
Digital Myths is a series of posts published from the book 21 Digital Myths, Reality Distortion Antidote where Netopia editor Per Strömbäck takes a closer look at some of the concepts that have shaped the way we think, talk and make decisions about digital technology and the internet.