WTF is the “free and open” internet anyways?

Courtesy James Kridland

If you have spent any time on social media in the last couple weeks, you have surely seen the news that FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, is trying to roll back net neutrality (the Obama-era regulations that govern the internet as a Title II utility). While various opinion leaders on both sides of the aisle have come out against this move, more than a few on the right have come out in favor of deregulating and privatizing the internet. Regardless of their political position, however, everyone seems to agree that net neutrality affects how “free and open” the internet is.

The FCC filing, entitled “Restoring Internet Freedom,” argues that net neutrality has destroyed the “market-based policies” that governed the “free and open internet” since the 1990s. Pai and his pals have placed the interests of ISPs (those poor, put-upon corporations, like Comcast and Verizon) over the public interest, pointing to net neutrality as the cause for a 5.6% drop in broadband network investment. I’m not here to act as a fact checker (that’s the Wall Street Journal’s job), but I do want to point out that, perhaps, this loss of investment in broadband development could relate to the increasing amount of cord-cutting happening across the nation, the terrible consumer reports for large cable companies, and the rise of viable (and popular) alternatives, like Google Fiber and municipal broadband networks across cities, like Chattanooga, TN and Longmont, CO

Just a thought. 

Regardless, Pai’s proposal notably argued that net neutrality had stifled innovation of the formerly “free and open internet.” But, when the Court of Appeals upheld the 2015 net neutrality ruling, Obama claimed it as a “victory for the open, fair, and free internet.” And, after Pai announced his plan, Reddit co-founder, Steve Huffman, laid out a call to arms, releasing yet another “update on the fight for the free and open internet.” Likewise, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) vowed to protect “the free and open internet” by fighting this deregulation and privatization.

I’m confused. Does net neutrality save the internet or does it break the internet? Is net neutrality Tim Berners-Lee or Kim Kardashian?

This phrase has been recycled so often that I’m not sure it actually means anything anymore. The phrase “free and open” as applied to the internet stems from technologists and futurists visualizing the internet as a market. And, according to the neoliberal attitudes that have afflicted American culture for the last four decades dictates, markets must be deregulated at all costs.

There are clearly some aspects of the internet that are market-based and have benefited from the same economic rationalities that drive capitalism. Online stores, like Amazon, or auction sites, like Ebay, most closely resemble markets in their traditional, commercial sense and benefit from market-based policies. However, social media sites, news websites, RSS feeds, search engines, peer-to-peer file sharing sites, movie streaming sites, and the entire dark web do not function under these same logics. At its core, the internet is not a market; it’s a networked commons.

Regardless, this market-based ideology has permeated contemporary discourse about the role of the internet in society. For the pro-net neutrality folks, the internet is a marketplace of ideas; for the anti-net neutrality folks, the internet is a market of consumers. In order to acquire the most consumers of this market, the FCC is willing to compromise the market of ideas by enacting policies that deregulate the market (following that old line of bullshit known as “trickle-down economics”).

The problem lies in the metaphor of the market, at large, for both consumers and for ideas. Fundamentally, the internet (and the policies regulating it) does not operate by the same logics that govern private markets; it was created through public funding, in universities and governmental institutions, by researchers who wanted to exchange research papers with each other. This is about as far from a privatized market as you can get! While we could also look at other aspects of US society that are incorrectly governed by market-based rationalities (*cough* healthcare *cough* education), the internet offers a clear-cut case where market-based reasoning has subsumed (consumed?) any other discussion about our cultural policy.

Market based policies also assume that freeness and openess of markets can be achieved, ignoring the obvious fact that the internet has never been truly open and free. Whether it was your monthly bill to AOL in the late-90s or providing Facebook with the data that allowed Russian hackers to influence the 2016 election, there has always been a price to access cyberspace. Additionally, while shrinking globally, the digital divide remains with only 15% of households in less developed countries have access to the web at home. We are seeing the rise of a second digital divide based around bandwidth capability, with newer internet adapters falling behind those who have access to more bandwidth and more data.

Despite the fundamental inequality of digital networks, the myth of the free and open online marketplace persists. With roots tracing back to the techno-utopian promises of people like John Perry Barlow in the 90s and  Marshall McLuhan in the 60s, discourse around the internet has been dominated by market-based ideologies. Defenders of net neutrality are doing their mission a disservice by using the same language that has been adopted to push for policy and legislation that will privatize the web and pose serious challenges for its future as a communications platform.

In the end, the economic metaphor of a marketplace is insufficient for understanding how we should regulate the web. The internet is always-already regulated by varying social, political, and economic structures; to assume that it could ever exist as a free and open marketplace of ideas or economics is, at best, a naive, techno-utopian vision of the global village, and, at worst, a predatory method to stifle innovation and concentrate ownership over information distribution networks.

Instead of envisioning the internet as a marketplace of ideas or commerce that should never be regulated (à la the “Restoring Internet” Freedom bill), we need to establish a new way of thinking about how to regulate the internet. Perhaps, instead of always hoping to promote the meaningless “free and open” internet, we should take John Oliver’s suggestion and regulate the internet in order to “prevent cable fuckery.” I’m not saying this is the only way to rethink how we enact cultural policies, but it’s a damn good start!

PS – Check out this great Twitter thread for all the problems with Pai’s arguments about ISPs not Title II before the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Leave a Reply