exploring the links between net neutrality and international development
Cross-posted from the #TABridge blog
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 site, this 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.”
Illustration by bugbyte/deviantART