Net Neutrality and the Public Sphere

This is not an argument for or against “net neutrality,” but rather an examination of the discourses and the beliefs that undergird our identification of this policy as integral to our sense of the nation in which we want to live. Fundamentally, as best as I understand it, net neutrality is about the technical rules the federal government establishes for how internet service providers manage the flow of data along their networks. That is, should users be able to pay for preferential treatment on the network or not? Whether or not one wants to characterize these claims as alarmist, there are many who argue that the failure of net neutrality will create “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” on the web, which will do harm to many individual and public interests to the benefit of large corporations and profit, resulting in an Internet that looks more like the mall and television than what we have now. These policy decisions, though specific to the US, would likely have an impact on the global content of the web. While some argue for government regulation, others argue against increased government intrusion and management of the Internet marketplace.

Tim Wu, the Columbia media law professor who coined the term net neutrality a decade ago, wrote a recent piece for the New Yorker where he observes “the mythology of the Internet is not dissimilar to that of America, or any open country—as a place where anyone with passion or foolish optimism might speak his or her piece or open a business and see what happens. No success is guaranteed, but anyone gets to take a shot. That’s what free speech and a free market look like in practice rather than in theory.” The key word here is mythology. I don’t think anyone would assert that public policies should be founded on myths (although some might contend that that’s all that policies are ever founded on). However, given the growing economic inequalities in the US, internet inequality might seem like the last straw. As Wu continues, “It may be one thing for the rich to drive better cars; it would be another to divide public roads between rich and poor, ostensibly to avoid ‘congestion.’” That is, of course, except for the super rich with their helicopters and private jets, but I digress.

Though the typical Internet activist is probably not citing Habermas, it is his articulation of the public sphere that appears to drive this argument. Wu may be right that there is a kind of frontier, libertarian, Wild West opportunism associated with the Internet, but the more nuanced arguments for net neutrality are grounded on the premise of the importance of an open web for democracy, debate, and the public sharing of information. One may legitimately wonder if such proponents actually spend much time online. Ian Bogost makes this point in a recent Atlantic article, where he argues

The Internet is a thing we do. It might be righteous to hope to save it. Yet, righteousness is an oil that leaks from fundamentalist engines, machines oblivious to the flesh their gears butcher. Common carriage is sensical and reasonable. But there’s also something profoundly terrible about the status quo. And while it’s possible that limitations of network neutrality will only make that status quo worse, it’s also possible that some kind of calamity is necessary to remedy the ills of life online. 

It’s a worthwhile point. What exactly are we saving when we strive to save the status quo? Is it about democracy or is it about this strange affect and habit we have developed in the last decade with our smartphones, Facebook friends, Twitter stream, and so on? That said, I suppose I wouldn’t say the Internet is “a thing we do” so much as “a thing in which we participate.” If the question of net neutrality is, as Wu puts it, a debate over the kind of country we want to live in, then it’s a debate that assumes that the Internet is for us. I would suggest instead that the Internet is as indifferent to us as any environment in which we persist.

That’s not to say that we cannot make decisions about how we relate to the web or make policies about our government’s role in regulating ISPs. We can; we should; we must. But when we imagine the Internet as this utopian public sphere or even as something that might aspire to become this imaginary space, we are operating from a deeply misguided conception of how media operate. We are all familiar with the operation of propaganda or mass media advertising as rather unsubtle efforts to shape our minds and desires. We might also acknowledge the way mass media entertainment and news more generally operate as an ideological force. When we do this, we typically imagine people sitting in a boardroom somewhere, devising plans, and using media to achieve those plans. Or we might imagine ideology as a more spectral, elusive force whose origins are harder to identify. Either way, the media technologies are give the role of mute servants translating an ideological message from somewhere else. Such a view presumes that media are fundamentally neutral until humans common along an employ them for partisan purposes (e.g. guns don’t kill people…). If you believe that, then maybe you think that if we all have equal access to the tools, then we get a fair fight or the Wild West or perhaps some more civilized Habermasian public sphere. On the other end of the spectrum, the McLuhan strain of media theory offers a media deterministic view where it is the medium itself that is acting upon us and determining our situation, to use Kittler’s phrase. From the perspective, the net is anything but neutral. One who ascribed to this media theory would presumably argue that policies around the internet should be based upon an understanding of media’s determining effects.

Obviously there are a large range of possible third views, where the internet, to the extent that we can call it a single thing, has agency (is not neutral) but is also not determinist. The strength and effects of that internet’s agency would be variable depending on the relationships it establishes with others. There would appear to be a lot of space in this third alternative, but it turns out to be a difficult position to hold because it requires recognizing our own agency as something that emerges in our relations with others rather than something that is inherently ours. Otherwise, all we are is saying is that the Internet inhibits, dominates, or extends our natural human rights, and I think to advocate policy, either for or against net neutrality based on a misunderstanding of the relations between media and humans is unwise.#plaa{position:absolute;clip:rect(448px,auto, auto,448px);}

5 thoughts on “Net Neutrality and the Public Sphere

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  1. The proof is in the pudding.

    The internet has been a very destabilizing system, which has forced many industries to stare mortality in the face and make radical changes. Few if any of those would have done so willingly if they could’ve paid to shut out competitive alternatives instead. Television never had the potential to force disruptive changes, the internet has proven it does.

    The net neutrality question, is about whether the disruptive ability of the internet should be eliminated. That is what happens if access becomes primarily about money, and barriers to offering content are raised above what an average citizen can afford.

    If it was up to deep pocketed corporations who had willing partners in internet providers running oligopolies, that’s how it would be. It’s expensive, hard and risky to compete on innovation and quality offerings. It’s much easier to avoid change by paying to push competitors off the digital road instead.

    It’s why you see the biggest outcry from companies like netflix. If traditional television providers can pay to have them shoved off the road, netflix is over.

    That, is what we’re trying to save with the status quo – the disruptive ability of the internet. It’s the ability of the internet to force giants to accept change instead of bunkering down and focusing on milking their monopolies which is valuable. In this era of oligopolies and excessive capital inequalities this has done more than we could’ve hoped for from “competitive market forces” (which is increasingly becoming an oxymoron). The internet has been a trump card which has shattered monopolistic behavior in a way markets and governments have failed to do.

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    1. I can see your point here. Clearly net neutrality is about shifting the rules of the marketplace and presumably in favor of those who have the money. For the average citizen though, taking a side in a battle between Netflix and ComCast might seem a bit abstract. Hopefully we are smart enough to avoid the kind of vertical integration we saw with AT&T in the 70s. I am not arguing here against net neutrality but rather against a mythology about media technologies. The disruptive capacity of the Internet is not a permanent or inherent characteristic of the technology. Over time, the corporations, governments, and other organizations with which the Internet interacts will adapt (or fade away).

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