Defending the Neutral Internet in Civil Society


I’m at Students for Free Culture’s annual conference. As I said a couple of weeks ago, I think the growth and enthusiasm of the free culture movement is really exciting. When I was an undergrad at the University of Minnesota, I helped create a group called Students for Fair Copyright that ran events like this that helped educate people about the ways that the digital Millennium Copyright Act threatens individual liberty. Running a DMCA-reform group in 2001 was tough sledding. Interest in the issue was pretty much limited to computer geeks, and the group petered out after we did a handful of events in the Fall of 2001. So it’s amazing to find, 8 years later, that there are dozens of active and enthusiastic student groups doing the same kind of work.

I was lucky to be invited to speak on a panel on network neutrality. I reprised the themes of my Cato paper, and I particularly focused on the need to distinguish between network neutrality as a technical principle and network neutrality as a regulatory regime. The dynamics of the legislative process has unfortunately caused a lot of people to assume that if you support the open, bottom-up Internet, then you must support giving the FCC authority to mandate network openness. Conversely, people assume that if you oppose government regulation of the Internet then you must be in favor of network providers adopting discriminatory policies. I think this is a mistake; it’s perfectly consistent to support the open Internet while opposing government regulation to mandate that outcome.

During the question-and-answer session, people asked how one can go about promoting network neutrality if not through the legislative process. I pointed to several specific examples. There are evasion technologies like BitTorrent header encryption. There are tools like Herdict and Google’s forthcoming discrimination detector. And people who are members of university communities can lobby the relevant decision-makers to protect network neutrality on their own networks.

But listing specific examples like this runs the risk of missing the more fundamental point: controlling the Internet is hard because it’s so large, decentralized and diverse. A determined ISP can probably use technologies like deep packet inspection to block the use of any given application or website. But the very complexity and diversity of the Internet means that these tools are inherently clumsy. Using them invariably produces collateral damage in the form of both angry customers and bad PR.

And users have a fundamental advantage: there are far more of us than there are of them. If a significant fraction of users actively resist network discrimination by adopting circumvention tools, ISPs simply don’t have the manpower to keep up. And even passive resistance can be effective. When a clumsy effort to block BitTorrent breaks unrelated services being used by other users, this is going to hurt the ISP’s profits even if the users don’t realize why their network suddenly stopped working.

So there are two general ways that civil society can help to preserve network neutrality. One is user education. Educated users are much harder to coerce than ignorant ones. Users who don’t understand the value of open networks are more likely to allow themselves to be herded into walled gardens. Educated users are likely to be much more resistant to such efforts.

Second, we can promote the development of open, decentralized software platforms. Monolithic, homogenous online services are relatively easy to filter or block. In contrast, open platforms—and especially free software—supports the development of a “long tail” of software and websites that’s much harder for a network owner to understand and control.

The great thing about these trends is that they’re likely to happen with or without an organized, top-down effort. Open software platforms have been gaining market share for decades simply because they work better. Users are learning about the advantage of open networks as they use them. Organizations like Students for Free Culture accelerate the process, and that’s great. But I think that fundamentally, the open Internet will be preserved because it works better than the alternatives, and people will defend it because it’s in their interest to do so.

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