Delicious news from the United States, where ‘Net Neutrality’ is again being recast for a new political purpose.
The term long since ceased to mean anything – it now means anything you want it to mean. But as a rule of thumb, advocating Neutrality means giving your support to general Goodness on the internets, and opposing general Badness. Therefore, supporting Neutrality means you yourself are a Good Person, by reflection, and people who oppose Neutrality are Bad People.
This is a wonderful thing, and the beauty is, it’s all so simple. It’s like the Good Guys Wearing White – the Bad Guys oppose Neutrality. And because Neutrality is anything you want it to be, you have an all-purpose morality firehose at your disposal. Just point it and shoot at Baddies.
But best of all is that you get to define the Baddies, raise a lynch mob, catch them and hang them – before somebody has had a chance to ask "Where’s the harm, exactly?".
This time the accusation of Neutrality Violations is being turned on copyright holders, minority groups – and anyone who wants a network to run the way they want it to.
Rights for some, but not all
Now you may be thinking that it’s strange that in an age when we keep being told that thanks to technology "we’re all creators", creators’ rights must go out of the window. Surely these digital rights should be being strengthened – as new sources of money are available to the talented, and as old middlemen melt away? Has a technology ever been invented that when allied to copyright, makes creators less independent, or poorer? Not until now.
But not everybody sees it this way. Copyright messes up the smooth running of the networks, it’s a spanner in the machine-driven cybernetic utopia. It also costs network operators money – paying the pesky talent who create the stuff that generates the demand. And it’s impossible for a machine to do: an algorithm is unable to spot and nurture creative talent, in the way a studio boss or a publisher or a label could find and nurture acting writing or performing talent. The machine can’t compute that. And of course, the machine can’t create art: when algorithms are set to write a composition (or when, say, Cory Doctorow attempts to create readable prose) you can tell instantly something is missing.
So Google’s front groups such as Public Knowledge and FreePress – they fly under the flag of "citizens groups" or "consumer rights" groups, but are really two of Google’s most potent arrows in its lobbying quiver – are now deploying the morality firehose on copyright. Anyone policing the internets for copyright infringement will be violating neutrality, say the groups. Therefore it shouldn’t be permitted. Presumably the same logic can be applied to policing the internets for anything: a paedophile "neutrality" maybe being violated somewhere – which would be awful. It’s economically and technically illiterate of course, just as you’d expect. Nobody at Public Knowledge or FreePress has ever done a day’s honest toil at a business in their lives – their prejudices are evident. But the groups have also rolled out ethnic minorities, alarming them that without Neutrality, they’ll be erased. The National Hispanic Media Coalition, for example, is standing right behind the Neutrality firehose. But imagine these two examples.
How ideology busts the citizens’ networks
In the first, a community of citizens in a small town – let’s call it HappyVille – decides to mutually own and operate their town’s network. In order to defray the cost of buying bandwidth, they grant the HappyVille Co-Op Network a video-on-demand service. Punters pay HCN their $3.50 a movie knowing that the profit generated maintains the pipes. In order to keep the HappyVille citizens who prefer to get their copyright content illegally, however, they create a fast lane that goes only to TVs, for delivering the movies. This keeps the Torrenters happy, too. The HCN serves one happy town.
But that could be illegal under Neutrality rules. It would only take one bitter or ignorant ideologue in HappyVille to complain to the FCC and remind regulators that the Neutrality rules were being broken. Asking "Where’s the harm?" would not be a valid question. The Co-Op has committed a crime against Neutrality: Go string them up.
In the second example, let’s imagine that a diaspora of Latin Americans decide to start their own ISP. They club together to buy cheap international traffic back to Central and South America. Subscribers to the ISP enjoy cut rate VoIP calls to family and loved ones. It offers a community alternative to the scalping rates of large telcos. But voice traffic on an IP network is highly susceptible to latency and jitter – and one relentless Torrent seeder can cause problems. And as above, that one Torrenter can complain to the FCC that Neutrality Crimes are being Commmitted. So let’s close the joint down. No more cheap calls for you. That’s how the advocates seem to like it. One guy with his trousers around his ankles can invoke a virtual national lynch mob.
Ask Whitey; he knows best
There’s something uniquely distasteful about the sock puppet "citizens" groups evoking citizens rights to deprive citizens of choices. Some Progressives have always viewed ethnic minorities as little more than an opportunity for a photo shoot, and then forget about them for the next four years. This is all that, but it’s worse, too: it’s patronising and misleading them. It insults their intelligence. Whitey still decides what kind of networks they are permitted to run. The internet was so much easier before the technology utopians (abetted by Google) decided to write the world’s first technical rulebook for the internet.
When there was no rulebook, you could do what you want technically – and your network either succeeded or failed, according to the laws of physics, or the laws of business. Now you have to pass some arbitrary political correctness test, adminsiered by Comic Book Star Guy. Ain’t life grand?
You have to admire "Neutrality" itself though, and more and more each day. This metaphysical, metaphorical firehose can be anything an authoritarian wants it to be. It allows people who want to be in politics but who can’t do politics (in terms of vision, persuasion, coalition building, honesty) to wield tremendous power. It may not last, since it’s almost certainly unconstitutional, and the consequences leave everyone (except you-know-who) worse off. But it’s a great example of net nerds flexing their muscle.