Net Neutrality is sooo much more than access to the “tubes”…

Like many other geeks in my world, I reacted to Obama’s push for net neutrality with a succinct “it’s about time.” Net neutrality isn’t about competing business agendas; it’s a civil rights issue. And, in my world at least, civil rights trumps business interests. Of course, getting the public to understand net neutrality seems to be a brutal task. Heck, getting civil rights leaders to understand how net neutrality affects them seems challenging in and of itself. (If you’re not familiar with the issues, start with The Oatmeal or watch “The Internet Must Go”.)

As I watch these debates unfold, one thing keeps nagging at me… Many of the corporate actors who are gung ho about fighting for net neutrality also provide differential service. Much to my horror, I’m watching the free (as in speech) and open internet crumble in many different forms. Net neutrality is such an obvious pillar that I still can’t believe that we’re debating it. But what about the broader decline in interoperability? What about the international conversations about creating separate internets? The issue of net neutrality has much more depth than simply talking about whether or not telcos can be trusted to provide a fair service (although that should be obvious by now).

The Loss of Interoperability

All around us, I’m watching core principles of the internet sputter as key services crack. Consider email, the first “application” of the internet. In the 1960s, early incarnations of email weren’t interoperable across systems. With the rise of the ARPANET, email started to get standardized, making it possible to communicate across servers. By the time I got online, there was the closed AOL universe that didn’t talk to anyone and then there was the rest of the internet where anyone who could get access to a server, whether it be a university server or a prodigy account, could talk to anyone else via email. I took this for granted. Many of us still take this for granted, even as this reality is crumbling around us.

I’ve worked for three companies that provide webmail services. I’ve been employed or a student at numerous universities, companies, and non-profits that provide email accounts. While I have gobs of accounts out there, my primary email is still an email that stems from a domain that I control and is hosted on a friend’s box. I also made the political decision to host Data & Society’s email on a small activist-oriented service that functions as a cooperative. I’ve made these decisions both because I’m a little bit of a control freak and because I’m grateful to have choice in one arena of the internet, where the very reality of choice has been disappearing rapidly.

Over the last few years, especially as countless geeks turn to big companies to host their mail and their domains, I’ve watched the true interoperability of email dissipate. All too often, my messages are put into people’s spam folders because they don’t come from big name trusted entities. I understand the history of spam and I get the business imperative to filter out the crap that people don’t want from their INBOXes, but let’s be honest that, as our techniques have become more sophisticated, it’s basically meant that those who self-host or are on smaller servers are pretty much made invisible.

The Exclusion of a Continent

I can whine about this as a personal attack for my political decision to host independent email, but Jenna Burrell opened my eyes to a much more problematic element of this. Doing fieldwork in Ghana and Nigeria, she quickly discovered that the internet that many people she met look very different than what we saw in the United States. Unlike in China, where the government restricts its own people from accessing many non-Chinese sites, many West (and perhaps East?) Africans are restricted from accessing American sites by the American companies behind those sites. Whole populations are excluded from sending mail through certain webmail services because it’s assumed that they’re all spammers, scammers, phishers, and other “bad” internet users. Websites outright block country-level IP addresses because West Africans aren’t economically viable customers; the advertising ecosystem is not mature enough. Other sites block whole countries because they don’t trust “African fraudsters.”

What does equal access to the internet really look like? There are many layers to it. Net neutrality is an obvious component, but it alone does not address the increasingly inequitable and divided internet ecosystem that is emerging. As we fight the battles over access to the “tubes” under the banner of equality, let’s not forget how important it is to think about equality at the software access layer too.

Header image by Joseph Gruber