My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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making net neutrality relevant

Discussions concerning network neutrality have been occurring in the blogosphere for years now. Yet, at family events like Thanksgiving, i’m reminded of how incomprehensible this issue is to most educated people in this country. I’m curious if others out there are having difficulty explaining this issue (and its significance) to their parents, cousins, and other relatives who think email is a recent invention? What tactics have you taken?

Here’s the best explanation i could muster:

Y’know how when you look at videos online, it’s kinda slow? What if that slowness was intentional to dissuade you from watching those videos? I don’t mean to get all conspiracy theory on you, but what if the cable company thought that the people putting the video up online were cutting into their main business so they choose to slow it down? What if they made it easier for you to acquire content that people paid them to serve to you? In other words, what if the network wasn’t neutral? If you think of this in terms of freeways, what if the rich people were allowed to go faster than the poor people simply because they paid more taxes?

The reason that the Internet is so revolutionary is because (theoretically) anyone can get on that information highway, add information and consume others’ information. While the Internet has not been the great equalizer that everyone wants, it’s really important that the structure is as open as possible so that things can grow.

All around us, market forces are disrupting innovation and access. You know how you hear about neat things that phones do in other countries? The reason your phone doesn’t do that is because people like me can’t add things onto the phone without the permission of the telephone carriers (like Verizon, T-Mobile, etc.). This is because the mobile phone network isn’t neutral. As a result, innovation is majorly hampered and in regions where there aren’t these restrictions, development of new ideas is flourishing.

There are lots of ways to look at net neutrality. From one POV, you can see it as unpatriotic. It is destroying America’s ability to innovate (although, from a global market perspective, you might not care or from a anti-innovation perspective, this might be a good thing). Another POV is that it’s simply not fair (although you might not care about fairness and would prefer that the rich get richer). Another POV is that it closes access to information and makes certain that a few people control what information you get (again, if you’re on a certain side of that equation, you might relish this).

But how do you make net neutrality something that people like my mother want to stand up and fight for? While i’m stoked that this war is going to be Goliath vs. Goliath (Google vs. the cables/carriers), i still think that educated people should understand what is going on. But i don’t think that they do. And i don’t think that our rhetoric around net neutrality makes any sense to them. How would you fix this?

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11 comments to making net neutrality relevant

  • Howard Rheingold

    I like Craig Newmark’s argument/explanation:

    Most Americans believe that if you play fair and work hard, you’ll get ahead. But this notion is threatened by legislation passed Thursday night by the U.S. House of Representatives that would allow Internet service providers to play favorites among different Web sites.

    Here’s a real world example that shows how this would work. Let’s say you call Joe’s Pizza and the first thing you hear is a message saying you’ll be connected in a minute or two, but if you want, you can be connected to Pizza Hut right away. That’s not fair, right? You called Joe’s and want some Joe’s pizza. Well, that’s how some telecommunications executives want the Internet to operate, with some Web sites easier to access than others. For them, this would be a money-making regime.

    Next stop is the Senate. If this becomes law, your Yahoo Inc. e-mail account could operate more slowly, unless Yahoo ponies up big bucks to the major telecommunication companies that bring the Internet into your home. By the same token, your craigslist classifieds (I’m the Craig from craigslist) could grind to a halt, unless my company pays up. This is not fair.

    Telecommunication companies already control the pipes that carry the Internet into your home. Now they want control which sites you visit and how you experience them. They would provide privileged access for themselves and their preferred partners while charging other businesses for varying levels of service.

    But why change a good thing? Right now, the Internet is a level playing field for everyone. The wonky term for this is “Net neutrality.” When the Internet is neutral, everyone can use it, just like everyone can use public roads or airwaves. All businesses on the Internet get an equal shot at success.

    Here’s how Susan Crawford, a professor of cyberlaw and intellectual property at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, puts it:

    “Think of the pipes and wires that you use to go online as a sidewalk. The question is whether the sidewalk should get a cut of the value of the conversations that you have as you walk along? The traditional telephone model has been that the telephone company doesn’t get paid more if you have a particularly meaningful call — they’re just providing a neutral pipe.”

    That’s the gist of the issue. The telecom executives tell us that they can be trusted to play fair to let all companies, and not just their paying partners, be equally accessible from homes everywhere. But some of these executives have admitted that they intend to cheat.

    William L. Smith, the chief technology officer for Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp., recently told the Washington Post that BellSouth should, for example, be able to charge Yahoo Inc. for the opportunity to have its search site load faster than that of Google Inc. or vice versa. “If I go to the airport, I can buy a coach standby ticket or a first-class ticket,” Smith said. “In the shipping business, I can get two-day air or six-day ground.”

    In my view, executives like Smith forget that they get the use of public resources, like the airwaves and public rights of way, on which they have built their businesses and made a lot of money. As such, they shouldn’t be able to squeeze out some Web sites in favor of others. This would be a betrayal of the public trust.

    You, the consumer, should be able to choose which sites you want to visit without the telecommunications companies interfering. What it really comes down to is this: The telecommunications executives say we should trust them to provide a level playing field of service, but can they be trusted to play fair?

    You already know the answer. If not, ask your repair guy why he didn’t show up when promised or consider why the telecom companies block some high-tech services from reaching your cell phone as their own services flourish, as reported recentlyexternal link by Walter Mossberg in the Wall Street Journal. Or how about the fake grass-roots Web sites, such as Hands off the Internetexternal link, the telecom industry has set up to support its cause? Is that the height of honesty?

    It seems to me that many telecom execs have a deep investment in “truthiness,” where they make claims about this or that thing without bothering to support those claims with facts. Perhaps the clearest example of this behavior is when they say that keeping the Net neutral, as it is now, involves more government intervention and regulation, when really the opposite is true.

    So let’s keep the Net as it is now: Neutral, fair and free. If you care about this issue, please visit Save the Internet and write to Congress.

  • Very good question, danah. The way the issue gets debated, it’s already a huge step for someone to even bother asking for clarification or additional information! Seriously, it sounds like such a niche topic to most that I doubt most pay attention or understand its relevance.

    I think the pizza example above is intriguing. Often people get these things best when related to a financial transaction/customer experience. (That comment is based on my experiences from teaching, not on some study looking at how people learn about issues best.) Of course, the example could be a political one, but that usually takes more explanation. (Example: the provider company doesn’t want you to see a pro-choice Web site or some politician’s message so they slow down access to sites on those topics.)

    By the way, this discussion is also relevant for how to explain the issue to students. It comes up in my undergrad class and even with students who’ve been thinking about Internet & society issues for several weeks it’s not an obvious question.

    Like you, I try to give an example of a topic that may be of interest and explain the differential access that will be created based on the provider company’s not the user’s preferences.

  • Persuading the greater community of internet users that net neutrality is an issue would be a very indirect route to achieving the desired outcome: net neutrality.

    The most direct route would be persuading the necessary legislators, regulators and/or private corporate decision makers to change their course.

    Behind the scenes, lobbyists will emphasise the anti-trust implications with some decision makers. For others, rural-urban equity, or innovation, or freedom of information will be the focus.

    Yes, these decision makers will stop to wonder what their constituents or customers want, but with an industry issue like this one that won’t be the dominant issue.

    The next question, by implication, is what can you do as a private individual? You’re lucky that you’re articulate and passionate. This is why you tried to persuade your mother. If I was you, I’d volunteer my services as an expert witness or similar for the lobbying campaign.

  • Maybe the ‘problem’ is that for many people, the Internet just isn’t *that* big a deal – not enough to invest ‘concern’ over. Despite all the hype, many, many people don’t *need* to watch videos on-line. And if they did, they’re probably so used to paying for services anyway that a) they’d go through some “official” channel (e.g. people flocking to iTunes), and b) they wouldn’t notice/care about paying an extra bit on top (“all part of the service of convenience”) to then transfer that data. People will pay for stuff they don’t understand, so long as it works…

    The crowd that should care, but that don’t seem to shout too loudly (although I must admit to have not being paying *strictest* attention 🙂 is the creative lot, the content-generating lot. The indie publishers should be up in arms, as should people that have found a new “business model” on the Internet (I’m thinking of people selling stuff via eBay). Also, I think, this is an area that really impacts what a lot of the younger crowd are doing – distributing content from phones, webcams, etc, currently for free. “Youth power” should really care about this, as in a way they have most to lose.

    In short, I think there are a lot of people who take the Internet for granted, but have come to realise some self-suffiency through it, some independence. The threat that removing net neutrality puts forward is about restoring this dependence, this “re-integration” if you like. Maybe even taking it away for a bit will make people realise how lucky they are at the moment…

  • Sorry that the comments section seemed to have disappeared. I’m not sure what on earth happened. 🙁 But i’m sad to have missed comments on this question

  • Most of the rhetoric around network neutrality doesn’t make any sense to ME, and I’ve been in/near the ISP industry since 1993.

    Instead there’s all this talk about what might happen in some big scary horrible future if the big scary horrible telcos aren’t stopped from doing the big scary horrible things that, for the most part, they haven’t expressed any intention of doing in the first place.

    I guess that makes for exciting blogs, though, huh?

  • My take on this is that the key – in best Geek Marketing 101 tradition – is to couch your explanation in non-technical terms (as when I talked of RSS as TiVo for blogs).

    One can talk of digital apartheid but to me that doesn’t quite capture the idea that economic power plays a crucial role in the discrimination. So, the best I can do is to describe a non-neutral net as a supermarket or museum or library in which particular sponsored aisles are wider, better lit and better stocked than others. Does that work for you

  • How about this analogy?
    Imagine a highway with many cars, at rush hour everyone goes slower, but everyone can use it in the same manner. The highway operator charges everyone a flat rate to use the road. Then one car who has paid for ‘priority routes’ (or something) comes along, preceded by escort cars that force everyone to clear one lane to let this car speed by, meaning everyone else will go slower.

  • So, I’ve had good success explaining this pretty simply to lefty friends:
    The phone companies want to be able to make websites pay them to load faster then other websites.

    So, for example, Fox news would be able to bribe the companies to load more quickly then little web sites like Salon.

    This leads to the obvious possibility of a situation like the one we’ve got with TV news and other mainstream media– a few giant corporations own just about all news that is easily accessible.

    If you want all websites to load equally quickly (depending on how well they’re designed), then you support net neutrality. If you want people who aren’t rich to be able to design websites that load reasonably quickly, you support net neutrality.

  • Steve

    Well, I admit to being one of the confused ones. I always thought the issue was that ISP’s wanted to charge hosting companies more for higher speed pipes, which has been standard industry practice from the beginning anyway. So it was hard to understand what would change.

    But you seem to be saying that the ISP’s want to artifically throttle down the speed of delivery at the *consumer* end of the connection, depending on the source of the content. This is unconscionable.
    Somebody really should make this distinction clear to people. If I as a consumer pay for a connection at a specified bandwidth, I should get that – and not have it depend on whether the sites I visit are “favored”.