Ethical Questions in Net Neutrality

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Generally considered the “inventor” of the World Wide Web.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was hard at work crafting a series of tools that would help revolutionize modern communication.  While working at CERN in Switzerland, Berners-Lee developed HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol) and HTML (hypertext markup language) that enabled him to publish a set of basic “web pages” to the public from a server in his office.

These two protocols became the backbone of today’s World Wide Web, and are the foundation for many network-based tools such as Facebook, Netflix, Spotify, and Google.  Development like these, according to supporters of net neutrality, were possible because of the open, democratic, and decentralized sources of power in the emerging internet.  In a blog post directed to the members of the European Parliament in 2015, TimBL (as he’s often called) wrote, “The Web evolved into a powerful and ubiquitous platform because I was able to build it on an open network that treated all packets of information equally. This principle of net neutrality has kept the Internet a free and open space since its inception” (Berners-Lee, 2015).

Opponents of net neutrality would argue that in fact, more innovation, more new technology, and stronger infrastructure investment would occur if only the pesky government would leave major telecom corporations alone and let the power of the “free market” rule the direction of the net.  Proponents and detractors both offer compelling arguments for a democratic, fair, and open internet, but ethical issues begin to emerge when the conversation shifts to policy design and implementation.

What Exactly is Net Neutrality?

Net neutrality is the idea that “the internet” – comprising many protocols such as http, FTP, email (IMAP/POP/SMTP) – should be equally accessible for all users. Further, all publishers or networked services should be equally available to all customers.  The neutrality of the network has been put to the test recently as major telecom providers and ISPs (internet service providers) have begun to develop plans to “throttle” network bandwidth (at its own whim), or provide preferred access to pay-to-play sites and services.  When these large conglomerates provide preferential treatment to certain sites, others struggle.  When bandwidth is throttled by the ISPs, not all customers experience the same internet.  In this arrangement, it won’t be long until we’re careening down the slippery slope of open market greed and corruption.

Feds to the Rescue.

In 2015, facing huge public outcry, the Obama administration’s FCC (Federal Communication Commission) set up a series of regulations designed to preserve network neutrality and prevent large corporations from exercising profit-driven decisions about network performance and content.  CNN Money poetically reported that “The FCC just granted itself the power to defeat a raging, fire-breathing monster: the monopolistic network owners who can kill Internet freedom by blocking websites — or by creating an Internet fast lane for the privileged, few, rich tech companies that can pay for it” (Pagilery, 2015).

Feds on the Attack.

As the current administration settles into Pennsylvania Avenue, net neutrality protections may suffer a quick and painful death at the hands of new FCC Chair, Ajit Pai.  Pai, according to tech website Cnet, is the “man who will dismantle net neutrality ‘with a smile’” (Reardon, 2017).  Chairman Pai has been a long opponent of government oversight of the internet, suggesting that any such oversight would unnecessarily choke corporate operations, limit infrastructure investments (e.g., fiber & broadband), and ultimately harm consumers by way of higher prices and limited choice.  Of course, defenders of net neutrality (the current author included) recognize that these telecom behemoths already have the monopolistic clout to out-invest any competitor and very quickly seize self-interested control of the delicate ecosystem of an open network.  When a handful of companies controls the distribution channels AND the content, we all lose.

The Moral Authority?

According to scholar Norbert Wiener, we can begin assessing the ethics of technology by identifying and clarifying how the technology (or related actions) affect society (Bynum, 2001).  In the net neutrality discussion, this can be difficult because there are few (if any) demonstrable correlations on either side of the argument.  That is, we can’t necessarily prove that a truly open network has more or less ethical utility than one with tiers, ISP gatekeepers, or “zero-rated” services.  We also cannot demonstrate that all corporations that may exert control in a non-regulated network are inherently evil and looking to destroy civilization in search of profits.  However, examples already exist that telecoms are policing traffic, discriminating against certain protocols, and favoring preferential content providers.

Once we’ve clarified the underlying issue (here, I believe: who’s in control, the government or the telecoms? or, is government intervention ethical?) Wiener’s model suggests that we attempt to apply existing ethical frameworks to the problem.  A teleological framework seems appropriate, as both sides are ultimately promoting an open network for the benefit of innovation, user experience, and healthy economy. More specifically, a utilitarian approach that suggests the greatest good for the greatest number would demand a network in which no site/service, user, or packet of data is favored over another; this type of network, I believe, requires some intervention and cannot be left to trickle-down technology (Balkan, 2013).

The open and global nature of the internet means that every node in the network operates at a unique level of utility.  A casual Facebook user might certainly appreciate faster connectivity (via ISP sanctioned “fast lanes”), but the small business owner who can’t afford to buy in to the ISPs “specialized services” might lose valuable customers that experience slow load times on his website.  Thus, we begin a discussion of relative utility and the value that each user adds to or receives from equal participation in the net.  This is murky ethical territory. Within the context of the social contract framework, the casual (utilitarian) Facebook user might be willing give up a few megabytes per second of connectivity (individual liberty) for the sake of a network regulation that ensures equal opportunity for everyone on the network.

The nature of the open, borderless, limitless network (Weinberger, 2011) also means that ethical decision-making must adopt a global, if not universalist approach (Bynam 2001).  In contrast to the consequentialist approach mentioned above, perhaps the nature of the net calls for a deontological framework that does not attempt to account for the many possible outcomes, but rather, judges the morality of the action on our duty to preserve equality and fairness on the internet.  A majority of engaged internet citizens seem to believe that equal access is “right.”  Only 1% of more than 800,000 comments made to the FCC online were found to be “clearly against” Net Neutrality.

Judgement?

The net neutrality discussion presents a wide range of ethical concerns.  Judging the decision on potential outcomes is philosophically impossible (and irresponsible).  Applying moral relativism to decisions of network regulation is difficult because of the global nature of the network itself.  In my opinion, I believe that a deontological framework is most helpful for tackling this discussion.  I believe that equal access (not just access) to all of the internet is a right, and that defending that right is morally right.  Corporations and ISPs have rights too, of course, but when they are given free reign to control, filter, and eliminate data from the network, they begin to infringe upon perhaps the more basic right of equal internet access.  In this case, I think the access right is more fundamental than the profit right. In that way, minimal government regulation provides a great good for a huge number of internet users.

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References

Balkan, A. (2013). Trickle down technology and why it doesn’t work [web log]. Retrieved from: https://ar.al/notes/trickle-down-technology/

Berners-Lee, T. (2015). Net neutrality in Europe: A statement from Sir Tim Berners-Lee. World Wide Web Foundation [website]. Retrieved from http://webfoundation.org/2015/10/net-neutrality-in-europe-a-statement-from-sir-tim-berners-lee/

Bynam, T. (2001). Computer and information ethics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

Pagliery, J. (2015, February 26). FCC adopts historic Internet rules.  CNN Tech. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2015/02/26/technology/fcc-rules-net-neutrality/

Reardon, M. (2017, February 14). Meet the man who’ll dismantle net neutrality ‘with a smile’. CNet. Retrieved from https://www.cnet.com/news/fcc-chairman-ajit-pai-dismantle-net-neutrality-with-a-smile/

Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.

13 thoughts on “Ethical Questions in Net Neutrality

  • Tricia

    James – Thanks for the well informed assessment of the ethical principles surrounding net neutrality. Simply on principle I have consistently supported net neutrality. I don’t favor limited view and access of basically anything. It is also a fairly complex issue which you do a nice job of outlining. You might enjoy the “he said/she said” style arguments in this recent piece by Amy Nordrum http://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/telecom/internet/does-net-neutrality-help-or-harm-innovation

    The concepts of free and open internet access have also taken on different meaning for me since beginning this class. I keep thinking about how the internet is actually a networked web of which we are all a part in the sense of being so connected. It becomes an extension of us. Thus privatization or ceding imbalanced control seems metaphorically at least, like it puts us in a sort of prison. You reference the “delicate ecosystem of an open network.” I love that description because although I previously saw the connection the internet creates as a technological one, I now have a better appreciation of the kind interpersonal connection the web can foster. I appreciate your position regarding equal access being the moral imperative. Without open and equal access society will become more and more stratified. Connection could very possibly become as critical to a person’s opportunities in life as access to education is today. I feel privatizing either one is a vote against foundational rights. Thanks for the post ~Tricia

    • James

      Tricia – thanks for jumping in here. I appreciate your comments and insightful words.

      The “net” is indeed something that is very interpersonal and increasingly important for survival. I have my mass media students go a day without “media” and then reflect on the question, “Are you addicted to media?” and “Can you live without it?” It seems absurd, and at first, most say, “no, I’m not… I can live without it just fine!” But ultimately realize just how ubiquitous media is. This is in the context of TV, radio, etc., but also points to social and networked media. Dig a little deeper, and we see just how reliant we are on the net for things like banking and financial records, medical records, the bus schedule, city grids…

      There are a lot of competing data flowing through the network pipes, and I would hate to see any one entity with its finger on the on/off switch.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      • An insightful post, James, and great comment by Tricia as well! I too fall in the camp of “access as a right”. As a country, we decided that everyone should have access to electricity and clean water. Bandwidth is now a close third!

        Hard to believe that this was 11 years ago, but I was keynoting a conference with some rising freshmen in the state of Georgia. My presentation was based on a recent bestseller – Tom Friedman’s THE WORLD IS FLAT, and how the web was fundamentally changing everything. I will never forget a young lady completing the sentence “The web is …” – she said, “The web is like oxygen – you need it for life!” At the time, I thought that was a little over the top. A decade later, I think she was on to something!

        All of which suggests that you do not throttle oxygen!!!

        • James

          Thanks, Dr. Watwood – and a great story about your student!
          The commend definitely feels over the top at first glance, but when you think about it more, connectivity has become critical to so many aspects of our modern life.

  • Tricia

    James – I think that’s a great assignment and likely gets your students really reflecting on their lives, priorities, and the choices they are making. Yet as Dr. Watwood’s prescient freshman suggested, “the web is like oxygen.” How many years will it be before students will honestly feel that they cannot survive 24 hours without connection? I think I’ve vastly underestimated the impact our connection has. Thanks ~Tricia

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post, James. As you do and other commenters above seem to believe, I believe that open access to the internet is as much a right as is access to water. Thinking about the internet as a resource. I would not state that the internet should be completely free and open to all, but instead freely accessible. we also must pay the water authority and utilities provider in order to get access to things like water, gas, and electricity delivered to our home. So too would see to be the case with the internet. However, in all those cases, there is government oversight, regulation, and protection. There does seem to be considerable debate on whether net neutrality protects First Amendment rights. Kan (2016) recently wrote of how those rights need to be applied to net neutrality, an article by Harold Furchgott-Roth (https://hudson.org/research/11977-net-neutrality-violates-first-amendment) of Alamo Broadband argues that net neutrality rules by the FCC actually violate the First Amendment.

    From the educational perspective, I fear for students from poorer districts and underfunded schools. Schools that cannot afford to pay for the internet fast lane will put their students at an educational disadvantage (Cook, 2014). Taking this forward to higher education, the richest of colleges and universities will be able to provide the fastest speeds for their students, putting them at even a greater advantage in recruitment of students.

    James, I wonder if because of the expansiveness and internatonal nature of the internet, that perhaps another solution might be viable. I am thinking about last year when the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers took over the internet registry system (http://www.businessinsider.com/the-us-government-no-longer-controls-the-internet-2016-10). Could the same model work for decisions regarding internet bandwith? An independent third party instead of the government?

    Best,
    The Ayes Have It

    Reference

    Cook, V. S. (2014). Net neutrality: What is it and why should educators care? Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 80(4), 46-49.

    Kan, S. (2016). Split net neutrality: Applying traditional First Amendment protections to the modern interweb. Houston Law Review, 53(4), 1149-1177.

    • James

      Some very important questions… thank you for posting!

      I had not considered the idea that net neutrality violates the first amendment. I’m not sure I buy it either. That article you shared is very interesting. I think that the author is incorrect in his understanding of the idea, and provides some examples that just aren’t accurate. As far as my reading of the federal regulations, there is no governance of what can and cannot be transmitted, but rather, that the ISPs don’t get to decide. I think the author makes some dubious claims and commits a fair amount of logical fallacies in the article. Still, interesting to consider though!

      Regarding the third party solution, I am having a hard time getting my head around how that might work or why we might throw another entity in the mix. Are you suggesting perhaps an telecom industry organization that might work to develop open and equitable delivery standards?

      • Matt

        Hi James,

        That is about what I’m suggesting. The telecom industry is changing so rapidly, I struggle to believe that the most knowledgeable out there are in the federal government. I believe that a group of industry leaders serving as a neutral third party may be able to protect the interests of the consumer when considering rules about net neutrality, but also keep the interests of business and economics in mind, as well. Perhaps it is better in theory than it would be in practice, but I like to think this issue should be dependent on more than whomever the sitting chair of the FCC happens to be at the time.

        Best,
        The Ayes Have It

  • Chris Kean

    James,

    Like everyone else that has posted, I too am an advocate of net neutrality (my amazon smile account is linked to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to give you a better idea where I stand). In fact this is an issue that I find so one sided that often feel that those on the other side are merely greedy or misinformed (the infamous “the internet is a series of tubes” comment springs to mind). Although I do recognize that many people disagree with more regulation, the public utility argument seems to be as straight forward of an analogy as possible. Even with the concerning plans by the larger internet companies, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s recent manifesto (https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-02-17/mark-zuckerberg-s-manifesto-for-facebook-offers-a-social-dystopia), the option for other smaller companies to use the same internet and have access to everyone equally allows the “free market” to determine if these policies are popular, as opposed to the ISPs and fast lanes eliminating that choice altogether. Furthermore, I think that the lack of competition that already exists in the ISP marketplace, with many telecoms having virtual monopolies in certain areas, has already had a profound effect on the infrastructure for the internet in the United States, putting us years behind other countries. Do you think the utility analogy should be taken a step further, with the government imposing regulations on the quality of the infrastructure that ISPs install and provide?

    Chris

    • James

      Wow, Chris! You’re really putting your money where your mouth is. Good for you!

      It’s been interesting to think about the economic/innovation argument after having read Weinberger and Shirky this semester… the notion that the network is smarter and more capable than any one entity in it is very important to the net neutrality discussion, and a key point that I think many opponents miss. The diversity of the net is what drives innovation, and some of the policies that telecoms want to practice could eliminate a lot of the contributions of a freely connected population.

      I think that if we zoom out on this issue wide enough, it actually becomes a social justice/civil rights issue in the sense that there are certain populations that are disproportionately affected by a non-neutral network.

      To your question about quality of service, I’m not sure I believe that it would be a wise way for the government to intervene. I think that’s a slippery slope that has very subjective, value-laden decisions entangled in it. However, there could be some instances in which the government could recommend a minimum level of quality. I’m thinking of regulations like OSHA or food safety regulations. I would believe that this is the type of thing the market takes care of… customers demanding faster/better/more reliable service with their wallets.

      Great questions, Chris – thanks!

  • Anonymous

    I do not like monopolies, and certainly do not like telecoms, but my problem with Net Neutrality is that the government is in charge of keeping it neutral. The government is notoriously horrible at running things, certainly things that evolve very quickly – and is the largest monopoly of all. As pointed out by Steimle (http://www.forbes.com/sites/joshsteimle/2014/05/14/am-i-the-only-techie-against-net-neutrality/#7a7cd6cf352e), it is an organization that spent an amount equal to Facebook’s first six years of operating costs to build a health care website (that floundered), that can’t keep the country’s bridges from falling down, and that spends 320 times what private industry spends to send a rocket into space. And once it is established that they control it, that control has almost unlimited tentacles – that can change with differing political parties in power. Steimle’s other great insight is questioning whether we would all have smart phones if the government still ran the phone system. Deregulation worked for telephony, and has brought us all within reach of affordable airfares (I was very young when the airlines were regulated, but my parents met as flight attendants, and my Dad worked for Eastern Airlines for 25 years – so I got the stories).
    And the issue of limited bandwidth will likely go away with the next technology. But that can only happen when competition is allowed to chase down the next satellite, compression, worm-hole, etc. technology that will level the field for many.

    • James

      Shawn, thanks for jumping in here.
      I totally agree with you that if the government were in charge of the day-to-day operations of the net, we’d all be in big trouble. I would definitely NOT support a state-run network. I see how net neutrality regulations could be the start of a slippery slope, but I don’t think that it’s the intention of any lawmakers to begin consolidating control of the network. Just as they did with the 1937 Radio Act, the government is proposing a series of rules that will help keep things clean (in the interest of the consumer). Sure, the “power of the market” might have prevailed in the early days of radio, but I think the FCCs issuance of licenses helped settle an industry that might not have otherwise gained the traction that it did.

      I also think that by allowing all players equal access to the network that innovation will flourish faster, allowing competitors from outside the monolithic telecoms.

      In general, I think that this issue is really about who’s in control. As you state (and I agree), it shouldn’t be the government. At the same time, major telecoms are nearly as big, bureaucratic, clumsy, and self-interested, and I do NOT believe that they would always act in the interest of the consumer. Here, I think a little goes a long way.

      Thanks for pushing back! Appreciate your technical expertise on this question!

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