Why you should care about Net Neutrality

This image does a good job illustrating what the net neutrality discussion is all about (thanks to Software Engineering daily).

When folks discuss the idea of net neutrality, there are a lot of terms around legislation like “Title I” and “Title 2” and regulatory bodies like the FCC and FTC that are discussed. I’ve linked to articles that dig into this in detail below. While those are interesting pieces of information, I’d like to spend time on why this is a matter of philosophy and principle and why this discussion is very important.

Here are 4 ideas we’ll spend time on today (the “executive summary” if you will)

  • Freedom of expression isn’t a function of the values of a place but the structure of the information infrastructure. Oppressive regimes led by the likes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin understood this and used the power of centralized/consolidated information systems to spread propaganda.
  • The 1960s were famous for the rejection of these centralized systems (in this case, the Bell/AT&T monopoly). And, the internet was explicitly designed to be network neutral as a way to fight consolidation. Side note: the internet’s design is a work of art.
  • This network neutrality or net neutrality means that every service on the internet competes on a level playing field and it is users (i.e. us) that choose which internet service wins. This system brings its own set of issues with it but it is better than the alternative.
  • Net neutrality principles are closely aligned with the principles behind the freedom of expression. So, the real question underlying the net neutrality discussion is — how much do you care about freedom of expression?

Freedom of Expression
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of expression is the right of every individual to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed by the United Nations in 1948.

What does the freedom of expression have to do with Net Neutrality? 
Everything, it turns out.

Free expression isn’t a function of the values of a place but the structure of the information infrastructure.
What we think and say is a by product of what we read and who we listen to.

And, what we read and who we listen to is a by-product of the structure of the information infrastructure. The United States is often touted (for good reason) as the bastion of freedom of expression. But, here is an example from not-too-long ago where this completely broke down.

The Motion Picture Production Code
In the 1930s, the entire movie industry in the United States was controlled by a small group of firms — led by Paramount, MGM and Fox. But, the “Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America” decided scenes like the one below that depicted gangster violence was morally questionable. In addition, the fact that the entire industry was run by Jewish businessmen at a time when anti-Semitism was rife meant the studios operated with an additional target on their back.

So, the MPPDA used the church’s following (which was most of America) to threaten boycott of all movies by these studios. They, thus, succeeded in enforcing what came to be known as the Motion Picture Production Code. The code banned profanity — including words like “God” or “Jesus” if not used in connection with a religious ceremony, relationships between white and black races, any nudity (even in a silhouette) and any ridicule of the clergy or the nation.

The code also restricted, among others, the use of firearms, smuggling, sympathy for criminals, “first-night” scenes and required kissing, for example, to only last 3 seconds. It required good to be good and evil to be evil and, thus, created the “Hollywood ending.”

The motion picture production code was probably one of the most controlling regimes the US has ever seen and stifled creativity and expression for more than three decades.

Would this have been possible if the industry had 500 movie companies instead of just 5? Unlikely.

The consolidation of an information industry makes it easy for such centralization and propaganda. This is why the consolidation of information industries are the biggest threat to the freedom of expression.

But, why do we have to worry about consolidation? Aren’t we in the age of competition?
In large parts of the planet including the United States, the telecommunications industry is under the grasp of a small group of firms. This means centralization of information is always a possibility. And, that is exactly what happened when AT&T’s Ed Whitacre effectively admitted to aiding surveillance of private telephone calls in the United States in 2006.

Again, would mass surveillance by the NSA have been possible if there were 100 telecommunication firms instead of a couple of giants? And, would the government have found it easy to get the largest of them to comply if it wasn’t for the fact that the government has worked closely with said giant for over a century?

Unlikely.

Ergo, the internet
The internet was born out of a military research project. The “parent” of the internet was a network called the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network or ARPANET. The ideas behind ARPANET can be traced back to memos written in the early 1960s by JCR Licklider who used the term “intergalactic computer network” that, in time, because known as the “internet.”

There are many innovations that make the internet possible. But, there are 3 we need to highlight -

  • Packet switching. All communication until that point was “circuit switched.” This required all points to be connected with each other and typically be routed by a central operator. It was the control of these circuits that gave The Bell System” / AT&T its incredible monopoly power. But, Paul Baran wanted the network to be more resilient and created packet switching. But, in a packet switched system, the information was broken down into packets and these packets, then, travel along different paths between the origin and destination.
  • Open Architecture Network. Thanks to packet switching, the internet could now be the network of networks and transmit information across networks operated by different providers. Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf collaborated to create the “Transmission Control Protocol” that allows for reliable information transmission while ensuring the architecture is open. The next step was to break this into two pieces — TCP/IP where IP or internet protocol defined what an “IP address” on the internet was and how these addresses would be used to send packets of information.
  • A layered architecture. The final innovation was creating an Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) 7-layer model where each layer supports a well defined function. The bottom-most layer (1) or physical layer is where protocols such as “Ethernet” and “Wifi” live while web browsers live in the application layer (7).

(Image thanks to Lifewire.com)

The design of the internet is a work of art
Let’s put what we learnt about the internet into practice.

Imagine you are typing an address into a URL or “universal resource locator” — e.g. to www.alearningaday.com -

  • First, the browser parses the domain name — “alearningaday.com”
  • It then contacts the DNS (Domain Name System) — a global address book of sorts. The DNS, in turn, sends back the IP address of the server which hosts this domain
  • The browser then sends this address a HTTP “GET” request. This part is truly magical (if the idea of a DNS wasn’t already) as this request goes through so many intermediary layers — routers, cables, switches and the like.
  • The browser begins to receive packets of data from the server. These get assembled in the “physical layer.” Now, occasionally, more communication is required. E.g. if the server has a problem, the browser needs to throw up a 404 error and so on. Each of these steps involves back-and-forth between the server and the browser.
  • Finally, if all is okay, the packets come together and the page begins to load. First, the HTML (the content), then the CSS (style) and, finally, any javascript.

The power of net neutrality, of course, is that you can type any address in the bar and the internet treats your request the same. There’s absolutely no differentiation and everyone, in theory, has a chance to win.

But, what about Google and Facebook?
This is an important question.

First, there are some obvious issues with the Google and Facebook attention duopoly. Facebook, for example, for the first time acknowledged that “malicious actors” used Facebook as a platform in the 2016 election campaign “with the intent of harming the reputation of specific political targets.” Of course, we all knew this all along. But, the fake news phenomenon made the downsides of Facebook’s scale and ability to mass personalize the experience obvious to all.

This is unquestionably something Facebook has to take seriously. Google, for its part, made changes to its algorithm (the transparency of that process left a lot to be desired, however). Facebook, however, refused to acknowledge there was a problem until now. So, this admission is a good first step.

But, let’s consider the alternative. This is what your internet plan is likely to look like without net neutrality.

This is problematic for 3 reasons -

  • The companies that strike the best deals with Internet Service Providers will benefit the most. This is a horrible situation if you are an upcoming start up fighting incumbents with rich pockets.
  • This sucks for the incumbents too. All of a sudden, they are completely dependent on the large telcos to reach their customers. As Netflix experienced in its negotiations with Comcast in 2014, that isn’t a situation anyone wants to be in.
  • Finally, Google and Facebook are a duopoly (or two monopolies depending on how you view it). But, they have earned their power by providing services that their users really want. The large telcos haven’t. There’s a reason Comcast typically tops the list of “most hated companies.”

This last idea is at the crux of the net neutrality discussion. The key aspect of net neutrality is “common carriage” — where the wires that carry the internet are considered a public utility. The telecommunications firms believe they deserve to be reap the benefits of building the infrastructure. But, internet pioneers will rightly point to the fact that the reason the internet works on their infrastructure is thanks to its innovative creators. And, they designed it to embrace neutrality.

Net Neutrality and Freedom of Expression
Ideals like “Freedom of Expression” are like the vision of a company — they are idealistic in nature and inspire us to do our best to make the world a bit better. I don’t want to make the assumption that the “freedom of expression” ideal is the right ideal for everyone. The Chinese government, for example, wouldn’t agree with me and that is why the Chinese internet is separate from the internet that most of the rest of the world uses.

But, if you are a user of the internet, you benefit from the many innovations that led to the creation of this incredible connection engine. Like all great human tools, the internet has got its downsides. But, when you put it in perspective, it is hard not to appreciate how miraculous it is.

So, if you care about the internet or the freedom of expression or both, net neutrality should be important to you. If you are wondering what you can do, here are 2 ways you can help -

  • Join the protest starting Wednesday, July 12. Many of the leading websites that you use will share ways for you to lend your voice. Do participate!
  • If you don’t want to wait, no worry — John Oliver has you covered. Just go to “www.gofccyourself.com" and click on “Express” to share your support for Net Neutrality. Even better, check out his excellent episode on Net Neutrality

A final note — thanks to an FCC chairman who is determined to roll this back combined with an all Republican Senate and House, the odds are stacked against us. But, we’ve been here before with SOPA. So, here’s hoping we can reverse this one as well.


Links for additional reading

  • The Master Switch by Tim Wu (book)
  • How and Why the FCC created Net Neutrality — on TechCrunch
  • Why the arguments against net neutrality are wrong — on TechCrunch
  • The Motion Picture Production Code — on Wikipedia
  • AT&T CEO testimony in front of Congress on enabling NSA surveilance — on ABC News
  • How the Web Works by Albert Wenger — on Continuations
  • Networking (No Computer is an Island) by Albert Wenger — on Continuations
  • Facebook acknowledges election manipulation — on CBS News
  • Net Neutrality Day of Action on Recode
  • Net Neutrality I by John Oliver — on Last Week Tonight
  • Net Neutrality II by John Oliver — on Last Week Tonight

This is an edition of a weekly technology newsletter called Notes by Ada. If you like this and would like free weekly notes via email, please just subscribe here.