Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Whether it goes under the guise of SOPA, CISPA, TPP, or the NSA there has been plenty of evidence of late that the Internet is under assault by acronyms. The aims of these various bills/groups have varied but, to put it simply, they have all shared a desire to exert increasing control over the online realm, be it through rigorous enforcement of corporately constructed copyright law or through turning the Internet into a massive surveillance apparatus. These groups have provoked quite vocal responses from a range of groups (which managed to halt the advance of SOPA and CISPA [and may do the same for TPP]), but the proliferation of these bills makes it clear that powerful interests want to tighten control of the Internet. Granted, it’s often easier to win a court case or two than to get a bill passed.
Case in point: the DC Court of Appeals (US) ruled in the telecom behemoth Verizon’s favor, in an impressive victory for corporate control over the Internet. The ruling, which strikes down much of the FCC’s rule making authority, is a kick in the teeth to Net Neutrality.
As “Net Neutrality” is the type of term that one often hears mentioned if seldom clearly defined it is worth taking a moment to quickly provide an explanation. To put it simplistically: Net Neutrality is a sort of principle that has been applied to telecom companies that requires them to provide equal access to web content through their Internet connections. If you have ever found it to be marvelous evidence of the Internet’s “inherent democratic bias” that Amazon or Google load with the same speed as websites that are not synonymous with massively powerful brands, than you have experienced an emotional pat on the head from Net Neutrality. Furthermore, the FCC policy regarding Net Neutrality has played an important role in maintaining that principle, by keeping broadband providers from being able to charge some sites more to ensure that their content is delivered more quickly. The Court of Appeals ruling changes that, making it so that companies like Verizon can begin providing faster connection speed to some sites rather than others (and potentially blocking access to some sites as well).
This is not particularly a power grab, its more of a power present, for the court of appeals has just handed Verizon, and its corporate brethren, a huge amount of control all wrapped up rather tidily. Certainly, the FCC can figure out new ways to classify the Internet that will perhaps allow it to reassert its authority (perhaps); Congress could potentially pass legislation enshrining Net Neutrality in the law (doubtful); and there is a fair chance that this ruling will be appealed to the Supreme Court where its fate would be uncertain (but still, doubtful). Much of the discussion, post-ruling, has focused on the threat to freedom of speech that occurs through the striking down of Net Neutrality which seems to clearly favor “corporate speech” or “I-have-a-lot-of-money speech” over “your freedom of speech. ” It’s a shift in public discourse that meshes dolefully with Lewis Mumford’s warning (from The Pentagon of Power) that:
“By one measure or another, often under the guise of public good, that precious right—the right of non-conformity, and counter-action—is now covertly being denied.” (Mumford, 290)
True, at the moment (in the immediate aftermath of the ruling) the potential of this denial is not particularly covert, yet as this ruling sinks in it will allow companies like Verizon to privilege some sites over others with such subtlety as to be exerting influence “covertly.” While the types of forums that engage in “the right of non-conformity, and counter-action” may become difficult to find (and access) online.
Nevertheless, is it really Verizon’s job to protect freedom of speech? Alas, not really.
In fairness, the argument put forth by Verizon and its ilk does have some moderately convincing undertones. After all, are these not “Verizon’s pipes” (or those of some other company)? As a for profit enterprise should they not be able to exert some influence over what goes through those pipes? Especially if they just want to be able to “innovate” and better deliver content to customers? There is some truth to this, at least insofar as Verizon owns its pipes. However, Verizon (and the other companies who have just been empowered) did not build the Internet.
Though the Internet has become ever more of an advertisement and corporately clogged wasteland the fact remains that once upon a time the Internet really was more open. The Internet was developed through massive investments of public money (See: Robert McChesney’s book Digital Disconnect). The private fortunes of Google and Facebook were built upon the foundation constructed by, well, your tax dollars. In other words the Internet was a publicly funded utility and as such a compelling argument could be made that access to its content should be distributed equally (insofar as small sites are delivered as quickly as big sites). Yet, every day, the Internet is becoming more of a map carved up by corporate empires and the striking down of Net Neutrality is shocking partially because it is amazing that Net Neutrality lasted so long.
Though Verizon, coming off the ruling, tried to claim that the true victors were consumers (“consumer choice”) it is worth bearing in mind that a consumer can “win” in the form of faster access to some content whilst overall “losing” by having their options weighted to such a degree that only a modicum of choice really remains (this is the “guise of public good” Mumford was referring to). If a Internet user chooses to access Website A because its content is delivered three times as quickly as Website Q, they have still made a choice, albeit one that it is hard to truly call “free.” It is the kind of smiling-advertisement, bait and switch, captured by the philosopher Erich Fromm (in The Fear of Freedom) thusly:
“Because we have freed ourselves of the older overt forms of authority, we do not see that we have become the prey of a new kind of authority. We have become automatons who live under the illusion of being self-willing individuals. This illusion helps the individual to remain unaware of his insecurity but this is all the help such an illusion can give.” (Fromm, 218)
Yet, this ruling regarding Net Neutrality, infuriating and disappointing as it is provides for an important moment of societal introspection. One that is long overdue in this moment when it is plain to see that our technological toys simultaneously provide the perfect tool through which we can be spied upon as well as tools through which corporations can carefully cater our experiences. Verizon, the company that provides broadband connections to many people, is a for profit proprietary entity that has a primary responsibility to provide profit to its shareholders. If it makes profit by providing a superior product to consumers that’s fine, but it’s just as fine to its board of directors if it provides the profit by directing consumers to the Verizon website at ten times the connection speed as it delivers consumers to the websites of competitors. Likewise the actual devices that people use to access the Internet (smart phones, tablets, laptops, etc…) are products designed and sold by proprietary for-profit firms that are also primarily interested in making a profit. All of which is to raise the following question: can we really have “neutrality” or “freedom of speech” if the infrastructure upon which it rests is so thoroughly based upon rigid control and centralizing profit?
Or, as Fromm put it:
“What we use is not ours simply because we use it.” (Fromm, 225)
The Internet was built thanks to large outlays of public money, and as a publicly constructed space it was legitimate to think that it should be defined by “public” values like freedom of speech and Net Neutrality. Yet, now the infrastructure (such as Verizon’s pipes), which is used to reach that “public space,” is owned by private firms, and as private for-profit firms their concern is not with values like freedom of speech and Net Neutrality but with the value found in making a profit. Net Neutrality and freedom of speech are the type of ethical values that are hard to affix a specific price too, and as such it should not be a surprise that corporate firms are seeking ways around them.
The court ruling around Net Neutrality, the result of a lawsuit brought by a for-profit company, serves as an object lesson in the opposition that exists between what Lewis Mumford termed “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics” (in an article of that same title). Mumford argued that there were two traditions in the history of technology: “democratic technics” which were the development of group ownership, cooperation, and which contributed to the increasing freedom of the whole group; and, “authoritarian technics” that increased the dominance and control of a small portion of the population over the rest (Mumford saw much of modern history as the [at times violent] ascendance of “authoritarian technics” over “democratic technics”). An argument could be made that the Internet was an attempt to construct an example of a “democratic” technology that would value diffuse control, cooperation, neutrality, and freedom of speech; but as giant tech firms, broadband providers, and spy agencies have shown it is a “democratic” sphere that was all too swiftly devoured by the “authoritarian technics” of operating systems, Internet service providers, NSA protocols, and the like.
Net Neutrality is a value linked to a longing for “democratic technics” but (to go back to Fromm) are we simply being tricked into an illusion if we think that we can access the “democratic” goods through “authoritarian” means? Or, as Mumford posed the question:
“Once our authoritarian technics consolidates its powers, with the aid of its new forms of mass control, its panoply of tranquillizers and sedatives and aphrodisiacs, could democracy in any form survive?” (Mumford, 7)
Mumford was not optimistic. And from the NSA to the ruling against Net Neutrality there are ample reasons to be, if not pessimistic, at the very least highly skeptical. If we want technologies that share public values and ethics (like Net Neutrality, privacy, and freedom of speech) than we need to recognize that the current technological apparatus at work in our society is an increasingly “authoritarian” one. If we want Net Neutrality we need to recognize the degree to which the Internet and the way we access it passes through distinctly hostile territory. The way to confront the disempowerment of Net Neutrality is the same way that we must confront the NSA’s surveillance apparatus, for both are outgrowths of the festering “authoritarian technics” at the center of our society. As Mumford warned (in 1964):
“What I wish to do is persuade those who are concerned with maintaining democratic institutions to see that their constructive efforts must include technology itself. There, too, we must return to the human center. We must challenge the authoritarian system that has given to an underdimensioned ideology and technology the authority that belongs to the human personality. I repeat: life cannot be delegated.” (Mumford, 7)
If we want Net Neutrality, none of us can afford to remain neutral.
Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. Routledge Classics, 2001
Mumford, Lewis. “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics.” Technology and Culture. v. 5, no. 1 (Winter, 1964) pp. 1-8.
Mumford, Lewis. The Pentagon of Power – The Myth of the Machine v. 2. Harcourt, 1970.