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.