Net Neutrality and Why the Development Sector Should Pay Attention

Net Neutrality art by bugbyte

image: bugbyte

When librarians speak out in protest, you know something serious is going on. That’s what happened last month amid the public outcry after a U.S. appeals court supported telecom giant Verizon in its lawsuit against net neutrality regulations.

The American Library Association said the ruling “if it stands … will fundamentally change the open nature of the Internet, where uncensored access to information has been a hallmark of the communication medium since its inception.”

Net neutrality’s underlying principle is that the speed, cost and availability of your Internet service cannot change based on which site you try to reach. On a neutral Internet, providers “treat all bits equally,” Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman wrote in 2006.

The court’s January ruling said, in simplified terms, that the Federal Communications Commission was seeking to regulate cable companies and phone companies the same way, even though current regulations impose a clear distinction between the two groups. (Some pro-neutrality critics also believe the latest rules were poorly drafted.)

The telecom sector launched yet another threat to net neutrality a few days ago, when the country’s two biggest cable providers announced plans to merge into one mega-provider. Policy expert Susan Crawford, the leading voice on this issue, said the merger would only deepen the threat of bias in access to online content. “We can’t move ahead as a country,” she said on public radio, “unless we have a communications grid that serves all of our interests.”

In societies that lack tolerance, government accountability or a level playing field for entrepreneurs, the need for equal treatment of content and equal access to bandwidth is especially important. Imagine, for instance, Internet providers in Ukraine or Uganda selectively slowing or blocking access to certain news sources.

A “biased Internet” can achieve with censorship what data tools can through analytics and surveillance: the use of hidden systems to control the space between individuals and their perceptions. As Zeynep Tufekci wrote this past week, the same “big data” tools that governments use for surveillance are used to “micro-target” product information and campaign messages:

Companies want to use this power to make us buy products. For political parties, the aim is to attract support based on a tailored presentation of that party’s politicians and policies. Both want us to click, willingly, on a choice that has been engineered for us.

Without net neutrality, the ones who own the wires can let the highest bidders block or blast the messages that serve their own agenda. Ryan Singel, former Wired editor, described it this way:

If your cable company now wants to slow down Netflix, it can. If it wants to make Skype calls slow, it can. If it wants to make streaming video from its services lightning fast and free from data caps, while slowing down YouTube and counting that data against your monthly allotment, it can do so.

Advocates and donors working to preserve free speech and free thought around the world should pay close attention as the U.S. battle unfolds and the tools to throttle and channel opinion grow more powerful.

Inside countries less developed than the United States, net neutrality may not be today’s top concern. Between limited Internet access, repression of alternative media and a combination of free services and high subscription costs, net neutrality principles can’t yet be applied as we understand them in the U.S.

But whether the toll gate has a coin box or an armed policeman, access to “the full Internet” is getting harder to guarantee. Responding to my questions about freedom of online access in Africa, Ethan Zuckerman said Facebook and Google “are – wisely – striking deals with mobile phone networks to make their content inexpensive to access. If they can develop ad models that work in the developing world, they may end up financing a model that looks a bit like the AOL-walled-garden model: content within the garden is free, but pure internet connectivity is costly,” which could make it difficult for newer services to emerge.

And poorer customers will suffer more as net neutrality disappears. As Wired’s editors put it, “’pay to play’ only benefits the privileged.” Speaking in January, Susan Crawford warned that free services for poorer users around the world do not eliminate the need for net neutrality:

“For poorer people, Internet access will equal Facebook. That’s not the Internet—that’s being fodder for someone else’s ad-targeting business,” she says. “That’s entrenching and amplifying existing inequalities and contributing to poverty of imagination—a crucial limitation on human life.”

Zuckerman, who currently leads the Center for Civic Media at MIT, said even though the African governments in his 2006 example were ultimately unable to block Voice Over IP services (VOIP), the analogy is less clear in a 2014 context. “[I]s it futile to try and stop the powerhouses that are Google and Facebook?” he asked. “Or do we risk a world where the next VOIP is impossible if it threatens Google or Facebook, who might be subsidizing internet costs? I think that second scenario is worth worrying about.”

By the way, experts Ryan Singel and Zeynep Tufekci both self-published their above comments on Medium.com, a free site founded by “small media” entrepreneurs from Twitter. Without net neutrality, independent media sources (even ones like Medium, founded with deep pockets) will face a far greater threat from larger corporate competitors.

For more background on net neutrality, see Susan Crawford’s sitethis round-up by Matthew Ingram on GigaOM, and this letter from the White House responding to an online petition with more than 105,000 signatures.

UPDATE: As this was posted, the FCC announced it would be drafting and proposing new rules under its Open Internet Order, which seeks “to ensure that the Internet remains a platform for innovation, economic growth, and free expression.” But observers sounded skeptical in the hours after the announcement, noting the practical challenges to transparency in enforcing net neutrality and the lack of an explicit commitment to “treating all Internet traffic the same.”

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