The Morality of Network Neutrality

On Monday (11.10.14) President Obama came out strongly in favor of network neutrality.  The President had always been a supporter of the idea, but on Monday he made his most definitive statement yet.

The idea behind network neutrality is that once access to the Internet has been purchased, all usage is equal.  Once a subscriber has paid his monthly fee then his actions on the network (the websites he visits or the information he downloads) is treated equally to anyone else’s.  He can download as much as he wants when he wants, as long as it is legal material.  The network is “neutral” as to what occurs inside of it.  No person or company can pay for a “fast lane” that allows their information to travel along the network faster than another.  Imagine Facebook paying a fee so that its page downloads faster than the local community college’s.  Network neutrality means that Internet service providers like Verizon, Cox, and Time Warner would be in possession of so-called dump pipes.  They could collect a fee for its use, but they can’t flip switches and turn diodes to manipulate the speed of data that flows through those pipes.

Currently, service providers can discriminate “reasonably”.  This was due to a temporary armistice between network neutrality advocates and service providers codified in the Federal Communication Commission’s Open Internet Act of 2010.  I don’t get reasonable discrimination.  Reasonable discrimination is still discrimination, whether it is reasonable or not.  I believe I was discriminated against by my service provider:


Some may see network neutrality as inherently just.  They may make an analogy to the Interstate or the DMV, where people are not treated differently as long as they are taxpaying citizens.  They may see the Internet as not just a way to order things from Amazon, but the primary means of being an active participant in society.  Allowing people or companies to pay more to participate will disenfranchise those who cannot afford to pay the same price for the same service.  Moreover, it stifles innovation.  If upstart companies cannot pay for faster download speeds, then they can’t possibly compete with the big boys.  All this manic innovation that the Internet is known for will dry up.  Providing Internet service, for the pro-network neutrality camp, is not unlike a public utility.

Some, however, may see network neutrality as unnecessary government regulation, hindering the workings of the market.  Why not let bigger companies or wealthier people pay more for faster service? It’d be just like letting people pay more for luxury seats at a baseball game.  Moreover, companies could be hindered by network neutrality rules.  There are some users who use large amounts of data (like me), and this clogs the network.  The best model would be to let me pay more for my service, which would then allow companies to provide a low cost option for those who only need the Internet for email, checking a government website, and the occasional purchase.  Providing Internet service, for this group, is primarily a business.

Both sides would be right.  It is clearly a public good, at the same time people are making money hand over fist.  It was developed by scientists, funded by the government, in an effort to provide communications.  On the other hand, it exploded when businesses were allowed to provide Internet service to the masses.

This murkiness is why I believe network neutrality advocates  should cast the issue as a moral one.

Let me explain…

Culture Comes Before Technology

Network neutrality is already labelled a “principle”.  I prefer to go all the way and say that opposing network neutrality constitutes a moral transgression against the disadvantaged now and against those who will be excluded in future generations.  A class of people who cannot afford fast Internet speeds would be excluded from civic participation.  Would be entrepreneurs who cannot afford to pay service providers to send their data down fast lanes will be excluded from the market.

We either want people to be equal on the Internet, or not.  If we allow market, technological, or engineering explanations to become a part of the narrative, we loose focus.

Scholars who study the evolution of technology are keen to avoid what is called technological determinism.  This is the thinking that technology comes before the values and culture that surrounds it.  As an example, a common understanding is that social networking sites were created and then we became interested in sharing information and connecting with people.

In contrast, scholars of technology generally adopt the social constructivist view, which makes the relationship between technology and society much more complex.  In this view, human values, beliefs, norms, and meanings (culture) determine what type of technology is produced, or at least determine what we do with a technology once it has been invented.  In my last post I talked about how social media “could” have been coded in a different way.  But we decided to code social networking sites sites with the focus on the individual.  Understanding the power that a society’s values, beliefs, norms, and yes…moral imperatives, have over technology is social constructivism.

Ted Cruz called network neutrality “Obamacare for the Internet”.  Smart move.  Both the President and the act are at their nadir.  Tying network neutrality to the President right now is sure to put a scarlet letter (or malicious code) on the idea.

Ted Cruz calls net neutrality "Obamacare for the Internet" Image from:

Ted Cruz calls net neutrality “Obamacare for the Internet”
Image from:


But when I heard Cruz’s statement, I thought to myself…great!  Recently I watched a debate on the Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare) recently and each side presented all this information about the costs to people and to the government, and all the red tape that has been introduced and how doctors are sometimes straitjacketed…blah…blah.

All I wanted to know was whether or not more people had health care today because of the act than not.  The answer was yes.  I wanted this question answered first before any other concerns because affordable health care is a moral issue for me.  Then I’ll worry about the other things.

And so it is with network neutrality.  As an American and as a human being I believe that it is immoral to put mechanisms in place that will inevitably exclude people.  I recognize that this may interfere with the workings of the market.  I know that this will present challenges to internet service providers as they must deal with people who clog the pipes, as it were.  But that’s OK.  I have a firm belief that if we set out with a neutral, democratic, generative, non-discriminatory Internet as our goal, we can produce the system and technologies to make it happen.

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