Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Net Neutrality, the right and the left

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, June 01, 2006 | Category: |

Once again we have come to a situation where people seem to self-select into groups labeling themselves the 'right' and the 'left'. I find this far from original. Nevertheless, I think that the topic at hand is an important one, one which can affect numerous of us in our everyday lives both in with respect to our constitutional right to free speech, as well as our wish to freely associate with individuals.

Anyway, the current topic is whether internet neutrality should be put into statute in the United States. Now, in the 'rest of the world' we don't have much say about this because we are, quite obviously and patently, outside of the US. Nevertheless, my belief is that the decisions taken there will affect how we interact on the internet and the extent to which we will use the internet freely and sociably.

My worry predominantly goes towards the fact that as an internet user my use predominantly revolves around access to sites in the United States and in many cases hosted by state-side servers. If there were no legislation going through and the dual highway off access (ironically, I think, as sponsored by Google (the supposed champion of 'free speech' and other morally appealing virtues) and several others) goes through then those companies with more money would be able to pay in order to increase their bandwidth and the accessibility of their sites. What this translates to is a gradation of access – you pay more, then people can access you more easily.

Now, hypothetically, this could create certain benefits to us as consumers because we would be able to download information quicker, we'd have faster streams of video, audio, etc to our home pcs using basic infrastructures such as broad band. That is all good. What is not at all good is the fact that we would be, once more, at the mercy of those who have more money. Notwithstanding that most of us use Google anyway, and already using that system there are cases that those who pay more will pop up higher on the search list, there is still the possibility of you as an individual choosing to click through the pages in order to find a specific site.

If the pay-for-your-bandwidth situation comes about though then those of us who don't pay, or who pay less for our internet and hosting, will end up being nigh on inaccessible to those people who may want to hear us.

My problem with this is many-fold. Firstly, in terms of equitable systems, this system (or the mechanism by which the system will come about) is inherently based on an infrastructure in which the person with more money 'wins' more space, download speeds, etc. This is not a good thing in world in which there is already dramatic inequality. If we saw this, then it would be a simple case of the rich buying up all the access and the poor not being able to buy enough. In a world where business is to a greater and greater extent internet-based this is just shocking! It cannot happen. Inequality will worsen and we in the third world with our horrendously low levels of relative capital will not be able to survive. The miracles of the internet age, a la Mark Shuttleworth will cease to exist. You will have to have money in order to make money. That just worsens an already poor situation.

In addition to this, there is the more heinous problem (if you are a libertarian) of the basic curtailment of free speech. It will not matter if you have the ability to speak freely if no one can hear you – what I mean here is that if you don't have the resources to buy bandwidth then people who may have heard what you had to say previously will not be able to do so. What will happen to NGOs and NPOs trying to get hits on their websites in order to increase donations to their causes? Will the pool of people patient enough simply dwindle into obscurity? Will their success be dependent on hand-outs from ISPs? In which case there could be typical preferential resourcing and allocations of funding such as there has been with PEPFAR after Bush reinstated Reagan's Gag Rule. Ah well... there goes the ability of the poor to speak out. Moreover, if I realise, as someone in control of a specific ISP, that the blog that someone has, or the site content that someone has constructed, is against what I think, or believe is valid, would I then not have the power to simply limit their bandwidth regardless? Would this then result in those companies that control the ISPs being able to profile and reject certain companies or individuals because of their politics, their religious beliefs, or their sexual orientation? Where would the ability to 'choose' be limited? Once more, free speech could be captured and tamed by the capitalist machine. This has happened time and again with the visual and printed media where only those whose views coincided with a specific opinion, or at least didn't deviate spectacularly from accepted doctrine would get published. The internet, on the other hand, has been a milieu through which the unpublished could self-publish (granted this has resulted in lots of bad 'art' going up on the internet, but hey it can't be all good all the time). In this world where people can actively participate in debate and express themselves freely, do we really believe that a government such as the US' should be able to determine not only the future of their own internet protocols, but to a large extent the models that may end up being accepted by the rest of the world? Would it be a just result to see an unregulated and laissez-faire situation coming about?

This is where the 'right'/'left' thing comes in. Generally, the right has more money than the left. Moreover, they are, more often than not, those who want to ensure that regulation of companies and corporates stays to a minimum in a 'laissez-faire' style economy. The problem with this is that it generally means laissezing the rich to faire what they want1, such as if you have more money, you buy more bandwidth. If you have more bandwidth, all the more power to you, barrier to entry for competitors, level of competition in the market decreases, you gain more market power as others cannot compete with your investment, you gain pricing power and are a monopolist. It is the perfect situation for exploitative companies to say 'YAY!' a situation where government is not yet advanced enough to regulate us. That is unless the neutrality laws go through. The left are often obsessed with ideas such as freedom of speech (at least in some categorisations of the left I admit), of freedom of expression, etc. However, these could be lost as per the logic above.

Thus, once again, my personal opinion seems to be sitting on the 'left' with the regulators, the interventionists, the 'free speech protectors' and the anti-capitalist thugs. I reiterate that I believe that capitalism in itself is not a bad thing, it just needs to be watched, we are the custodians of capitalism and must ensure that it our systems protect not only the rights of those with money who want to make even more money, but those who want to move out of possible inferior situations into better situations. With an unregulated internet, this may be something of the past. So yes, I stand with those who want to 'protect the internet'. Read up, tell me what you think, I may be misinformed, who knows? What I do worry about though is apathy and people exploiting our inaction – once more we could be the victims of our own delayed conscious action.

Some sites FYI:

Against Net Neutrality

Pro Net Neutrality

1I know that the French faire is an infinitive and hence means 'to do' and thus makes my 'to' before the faire redundant, but it is there for literary effect.

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