Internet politics: The net is not neutral

The issue of “net neutrality” recently hit the headlines in the United States. Initially a sleepy issue unfamiliar to most people, it quickly gained publicity, mobilizing a petition with roughly four million citizens’ signatures and becoming the target of intense lobbying efforts by large communications companies. An explanation of net neutrality is a good illustration as to why this technology is not neutral.

What is net neutrality?
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) include cable and telecommunications companies, which provide the connectivity for the part of the Internet that leads to a customer’s home (often referred to as the “last mile”). Over time, this “last mile” connection has increasingly carried diverse traffic, ranging from email and websites to streaming video and voice communications. The issue of net neutrality revolves around whether ISPs should be allowed to create so-called “fast lanes” for certain preferred traffic, while giving lower priority to (or “throttling”) other types of traffic. As demand for streaming video services increase, ISPs would like the option to throttle some traffic while selling “fast-lanes” to certain companies who wish to pay for faster delivery of their traffic. This option is attractive to ISPs who are looking for additional revenue streams to help them build their infrastructure as demand for bandwidth increases. After all, there are many precedents for charging rates for expedited services as is the case with priority mail and toll roads. Supporters of a strict free market economy argue that ISPs should be free to operate as they see fit without regulatory interference.

On the other side are those who argue that the Internet is different than regular markets. Those who advocate net neutrality seek an Internet where all traffic is treated equally. They argue that net neutrality promotes innovation by ensuring a level playing field for small companies and start-ups who may not be able to pay for preferred treatment like bigger companies. They fear that organizations that cannot pay for faster service will become less visible. Without net neutrality, some are concerned that cable companies may throttle the traffic for competitors like Netflix who rely on them to deliver their content to their customers. In many places there is limited competition for the “last mile,” so without net neutrality some fear ISPs can effectively control access to content on the Internet. In such a scenario people fear that the Internet may become like cable television – a service where you can only access content that the cable provider decides to deliver.

A level playing field
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates communications in the United States, and on February 26, 2015 it ruled in favor of net neutrality. It did so by reclassifying Internet access as a “telecommunications service,” thereby enabling it to be regulated. Just as telephone companies may not control where their customers can call, ISPs may not differentiate between forms of traffic flowing to their customers. This ruling was celebrated by many as a victory for free speech and openness for the Internet.
This debate illustrates that the issue of net neutrality is not itself neutral. The positions formed on each side of the debate are informed by various values and beliefs such as freedom of speech or support for free markets. But how might Christian values and beliefs shape this debate?

A Christian perspective of net neutrality would resonate with the theme of justice to ensure that there is a level playing field. For Christians who recognize the importance of “culture making,” the Internet is an important platform for the creation of many recent cultural artifacts. Consequently, there is an argument to maintain an infrastructure that ensures an even footing for culture makers. Furthermore, bits are not neutral, and one might argue that there is some content on the Internet that ought to be blocked, if possible. Some obvious examples would include things like child pornography or the illegal distribution of pirated content. In these cases, there may be a moral argument (or even a moral duty) to block content and treat some bits differently than others.

The issue of net neutrality demonstrates how the technology of the Internet is interlaced with social, political, economic, justice and cultural issues. It also illustrates how beliefs and values shape opinions for how that service ought to be regulated or delivered. Technology is not neutral, and neither is the net, even if net neutrality is enforced.

  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin, he worked as an engineer and taught for many years at Redeemer University. He is a fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation and an Associate Fellow of the Kirby Laing Center for Public Theology. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013) and a co-author of A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers (IVP, 2022).

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