On Net Neutrality and Democracy

This morning I had a nice meeting with Didi Kuo, Academic Research and Program Manager at CDDRL’s Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective at FSI (the institute which co-hosts me here at Standford), talking abouty Net Neutrality and her article recently published on the topic together with Ryan Singel,

Many civil society initiatives (e.g. in Austria epicenter.works), as well as the founder of the Web and Turing-award winner, Tim Berners-Lee himself, defend Net Neutrality as a threat not only to the Internet, but also possibly to democracy.

Now what is net neutrality and does it affect democracy and how?

I’d like to argue that the answer to the latter is yes and no (at least when we want to know whether effects to democracy are direct or indirect), but let’s first re-explain net neutrality.

Essentially net neutrality means the right to or – more precisely –  prohibition against internet service providers (ISP) to favor, throttle or even block certain IP-packages: the bottomline here is that if your ISP can control what information you get or have access to, it affects the neutrality of the internet in terms of everybody having the right to publish and consume information published by everybody. Now, companies like ISPs of course view these matters differently: telecom providers have an interest in “fast-laning” certain content to e.g. (ARG1) favor streaming-services they offer themselves or get paid for (which would be an argument in terms of their own revenue), but also (ARG2) may want to throttle or block bandwidth-consuming content in a certain network cell that would take all the bandwidth from other users, in order to “balance” average network consumers’ satisfaction.  Both these interests are understandable and not directly related to democracy.

Still, net neutrality – or again more precicely the lack of net neutrality – could potentially affect democracy: it certainly may lead to starvation of small businesses or content providers and will very likely further fuel monopolies and information silos. Without net neutrality, network effects and higher demand for certain sites may by sheer economic reasons for the ISPs lead to driving smaller sites and content providers on the Web out of business … the traffic from and too their sites may just be throttled down to unavailability. While this sounds like a worst case scenario, I view this as a valid concern as a longer-term side effect: certainly is is a very negative potential effect that may be a strong counter-argument against the seemingly consumer-friendly (ARG2) above.

So, we have to understand that effects of giving up net neutrality to democracy are very likely not direct, but indirect. ISPs will not likely in first place have an interest to

  • (DIRECTTHREAT1) shut down publication of opinions specifically  or
  • (DIRECTTHREAT2) discriminate by specifically blocking certain information to be accessible to certain users

So, rather:

  • (INDIRECTTHREAT1) information diversity may just starve automatically by means of network effects.
  • (INDIRECTTHREAT2) ISPs might not even understand that e.g. automated, demand-driven content blocking will have potential adverse effects on democracy.

These indirect threats are IMHO the main threat. Direct threats to democracy are possible, but less likely:

  • if an authoritarian regime controls ISPs ar has the power to influence them, then they could impose certain blockage and discrimination (DIRECTTHREAT1+2) on the ISPs. This however becomes easier, if ISPs are few, monopolized… so ironically the indirect threats could potentially increase the risk of the long-term threats.
  • lack of net neutrality gives monopoly (ISP) companies themselves a powerful tool that could be potentially abused for politically motivated discrimination of content, therefore adding a risk. That risks increases by monopolies, and monopolies themselves are favored by lack of net neutrality, so again the indirect threat adds to this so far hypothetical direct threat.

While we should though keep in mind that for authoritarian regimes net neutrality is not the issue, as soon as an authoritarian regime is established,  it rather can control the internet traffic anyway on wider terms than “just” controlling bandwidth. Still, even if the indirect threats can – as I tried to argue – add risks to the direct threats becoming real, on the long run they could favor the establishment of authoritarian  regimes, thereby being a potential real threat to democracy.

I would be interested in further input and discussion! Leave a comment!

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3 thoughts on “On Net Neutrality and Democracy

  1. I see an intellectual weakness in the discussion of net neutrality. First, papers like https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/38719/1/608223638.pdf give reasons why non-net-neutrality might be a good idea to optimize value-for-money. Second, I think this economic position must be mediated by further considerations about monopolies or oligopolies. Many internet service providers do not only provide infrastructure services, i.e. internet access, but also higher-value content services. This is a bit as if a private highway operator would also be a logistic provider that operates trucks and would charge the competitor’s trucks an much higher price than its own operations (German railway system has this issue to some extent). Or, if a private highway operator is religious and charges believers of his own religion less for using the highway than people of no or other religion. This brings me to the third option: Non-discriminatory treatment within service categories (e.g. all video streaming services are charged the same), but discriminatory treatment between service categories (e.g. free email transport but charging for video package transport). A third requirement would be transparency of costs such that the first two principles could be maintained.

    This brings me back to the intellectual weakness: The discussion is either “ISPs – do what you like” or “ISPs – complete net neutrality”, while a third – arguably more complicated approach – might perhaps (maybe I miss some crucial arguments !) reconcile the objectives of freedom of expression and best value-for-money.

    1. “This brings me back to the intellectual weakness: The discussion is either “ISPs – do what you like” or “ISPs – complete net neutrality”, while a third – arguably more complicated approach – might perhaps (maybe I miss some crucial arguments !) reconcile the objectives of freedom of expression and best value-for-money.”

      well, actually this was precisely my point.

      1. p.s.: My point was to make clear that ISPs value-for-money IS a valid point to consider, but also MAY, if simply demand-and-market driven lead to adverse effects, I guess we agree there, Steffen? At least I don’t see why this main point has an intellectual weakness or how it would contradict yours, that there is no simple solution to that, in fact I like your suggestion and think you are right to argue that net neutrality needs more differentiated arguments and discussion. “Non-discriminatory treatment within service categories” is a good starting point for such a more differentiated discussion. Thanks for the paper link!

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