The U.S. debate about net neutrality
-- whether Internet service providers (ISPs) can discriminate against certain types of content -- has been anything but sensible, with no shortage of hyperbole from both sides. What is a complex, legitimate, and healthy debate about regulation and the opaque and sometimes byzantine deals between ISPs and content providers has been reduced to a standoff between proponents of a "public" Internet and evil corporations bent on controlling your favorite blog.
If the Google-Verizon deal
is anything to go by, rather than be the apocalyptic endgame where the "public" Internet is ravaged by criminal capitalism, the issue will rumble along through various administrations and FCC and Supreme Court rulings for many years. Net neutrality, in its absolute purest form, is a little like communism. A nice idea, but not really feasible. All bytes are created equal, but some are more equal than others.
Advocates in the United States argued that net neutrality isn't just a domestic U.S. issue but potentially a global life-and-death struggle -- The End Of The Internet As We Know It. In an April press release
, the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders called on the U.S. Congress to act in favor of net neutrality:
"The neutrality principle has made the Internet an open, creative, and free space. It is already being put under threat by the world's authoritarian states, led by China and Iran. It would be disastrous if the United States were to give it up as well."
The idea here is that if net neutrality isn't enshrined in U.S. law, then repressive governments will use the lack of legislation to further restrict their citizens' Internet freedoms.
Possible, but unlikely. Why? Well, they don't really need to.
For much of the world, especially people unfortunate enough to live in repressive societies, net neutrality is an oxymoron. Those 1960s American libertarian ideals enshrined in the early Internet and held so dear by net-neutrality advocates didn't always make it to Uzbekistan or Myanmar.
In repressive or semi-repressive societies, the Internet has always been at the mercy of meddling governments or unscrupulous ISPs, which will happily shut down or block opposition websites under government pressure. Ask an Internet activist in Uzbekistan what they think of net neutrality, and they'll tell you there's no such thing. In most places, you'll be lucky if there's even a net.
The worst Internet repressers don't need a side door, under commercial pretenses, to control content, as they can do that already with impunity by more traditional means: leaning on ISPs to pull content, shutting down ISPs, smashing up servers, imprisoning muckraking bloggers.
Where a U.S. example on net neutrality might have more of an impact is in countries with repressive tendencies but who also are aware of the need to project a decent image to the West and the global rights community.
There has been a trend recently for governments to justify their Internet crackdowns with Western precedents. Writing about the Sri Lankan Internet
, Sanjana Hattotuwa says that British or French surveillance schemes or Australian antipornography laws are "opportunistically seized by regimes like Sri Lanka to legitimize their own actions to clamp down on dissent."
Shutting down ISPs or denying access to YouTube
generates bad headlines, especially in Russia when you're trying to start up your own Silicon Valley and your president has just been schmoozing with the folks at Twitter. The concern here is that without a global enshrined ideal of net neutrality, government-controlled or government-friendly ISPs can under the auspices of the "market" make bargain-basement deals with state-friendly content providers to squeeze out opposition media.
As Jonathan Zittrain says
about the U.S. market:
"And that's the real danger: when each ISP can, in effect, speak on behalf of its unwitting subscribers, serving as the troll under the bridge offering up different conditions for access to them, the economics of the net will start to favor the consolidated, the well-connected, the well-heeled."
In countries like Russia or China, replace the "consolidated" or the "well-heeled" with the corrupt or the loyal.
Opposition media in repressive states have long been denied access to printing presses, airwaves, or rights to primetime TV coverage. In the last few years in countries like Russia, the Internet has been something of an oasis of freedom of expression, especially with the rise of blogging. In the coming years, however, there will be continued efforts by governments to reverse those gains.
Unfortunately, that is likely to happen with or without a global ideal of net neutrality. Repressive governments will continue to act with impunity and won't bother going through the side door of net-neutrality legislation. Semi-repressive states will use examples from the West to justify their Internet clampdowns, but they are more likely to be antipornography laws, cyberterrorism campaigns, or liberally applied antiextremist laws than focus on net neutrality.
As Mong Palatino wrote for Global Voices
"Politically driven Internet regulation often encounters strong opposition from Internet users and it always elicits condemnation around the world, especially from media groups and human rights organizations. Governments can always ignore the noisy critics but they will also lose credibility. Governments with democratic trappings cannot afford to censor the online media for an extended period. But regulating the web to stop pornography and other immoral acts somehow generates only a whisper of protest. It has become the safest ruse to block 'harmful' websites."
There has been much talk in the United States about the danger of parallel Internets: the Internet of the haves and the Internet of the have-nots. Unfortunately, in repressive states those parallel Internets are already in place. Because of the digital divide, there is the Internet of the connected (in every sense of the word) and then the Internet of everyone else, where citizens might only occasionally log on in a government-monitored Internet cafe.
But the starker divide, already in place in repressive societies like Iran, is between those who access the real uncensored Internet through proxies and those who access what amounts to nothing more than a sanitized government-run intranet. For this rising proxy generation, global net neutrality is irrelevant and nothing more than a whimsical ideal.
-- Luke Allnutt