What We Talk About When We Talk About Net Neutrality

October 27, 2010
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It’s been one year now since the FCC opened up the official policymaking process for net neutrality regulations on internet access.  A lot has changed with the issue since then, but perhaps the biggest is what “net neutrality” actually means to many of those who talk about it.  Despite its reputation as a wonky and bewildering issue, net neutrality actually boils down to a pretty simple principle with wide support: the internet should remain open, allowing universal and equal access to whatever on the network users want.  It’s important to point out, then, that a lot of those who are talking about “net neutrality” these days aren’t actually talking about this.

A few major events have dominated the net neutrality front in the last several months.  The FCC’s policy proposal process was interrupted in April when the Comcast v. FCC case put the commission’s legal authority to regulate internet access at all highly in doubt (the legacy of Bush-era reregulation).  Over the summer, then, the FCC held meetings to negotiate a compromise on net neutrality regulations— meetings held behind closed doors with only representatives of the cable and telecom industries and internet content and service companies at the table.  Then, in August, Verizon and Google reached an agreement and announced their plan for how to enact net neutrality policy, as covered here on Antenna by Mark Hayward and here by Jennifer Holt.

Net neutrality as a term, while it has been translated different ways, ultimately has been articulated to a particular principle of openness and nondiscrimination— like common carriage, the public obligations of private infrastructure owners.  The concept of net neutrality is constructed discursively: while the term has absorbed different values and interests from various stakeholders, a common sense of its meaning has coalesced and it has become relatively stable as a discursive formation.  The term started its life as a technical principle, coined by Tim Wu to describe the most efficient network design to encourage innovation.  It has also been taken up by internet content and service companies like Google (pre-Googizon era) and Skype, mostly as an economic principle describing the most fair marketplace for their content and services to compete.  Public interest organizations like Free Press have used it to describe a civic principle of freedom of expression and democratic participation.  Despite the differing interests of these groups, they formed a sort of alliance that came together in support of a few basic tenets: infrastructure control should be kept separate from content control, so that internet access providers should not interfere with or give preferential treatment to any particular content, service, application, or device based on who owns it.

Now that one of its biggest “supporters” is Verizon and Google, once the loudest pro-neutrality voice, has committed itself to a very compromised position, what net neutrality actually means is changing very quickly.  This is evident especially in the recent (eventually shelved) net neutrality bill introduced into the US House by Rep. Henry Waxman and its resemblance to the Verizon/Google vision of net neutrality.  Judging from this, “net neutrality” means something very different now.  First, openness rules apply to the “public internet,” but there are no such requirements on “differentiated services,” which means that this “private internet” would become a de facto fast lane for only the content and services owned by cable and telecom companies (hello Comcast-NBCU) or those who can afford to cut deals with them (goodbye Antenna).   Further, there are no nondiscrimination rules at all for wireless internet access, which is especially troubling since it’s easy to see that mobile devices will very soon be the dominant way to access the internet.  Finally, the FCC is left to investigate bad actors only on a case-by-case basis and has no rulemaking authority over internet access, which is clearly an indication of how corporations like Verizon and Google can cut regulators out of the policymaking process altogether and just do it themselves.

Clearly, then, there is a difference between the principles behind net neutrality and the way it is now talked about– especially in the policy sphere where discourse has the power to shape the technical structures in question.  One undeniable reason for the progress that had been made toward enforceable net neutrality was the support of big internet corporations– especially Google.  However, the alliance that came together around the issue is beginning to splinter, as shown by Google moving away from the overlapping interests that once brought this alliance together and toward new interests, especially their relationship with Verizon in the mobile device market.  The compromise reached between “both sides,” then, is between two competing sets of corporate interests and the definition of the net neutrality situation is left up to those with the biggest profits to gain.  Like Bill Kirkpatrick detailed here on Antenna recently in regard to ACTA, this is yet another way of confusing the powers at play in making policy: when the party at the negotiating table in these policymaking issues that comes the closest to representing the public interest is just another big corporation and the public interest and the corporate interest inevitably split, then we’re all left out of the process.

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