Network neutrality and democracy

A vital instrument of global democracy and freedom

by Marlin Ouverson (2009; updated 2011)

Personal computers can be democracy amplifiers in a very immediate and personal way.

Not just PCs, but the infrastructure that includes loads of information stored in a multitude of locations, and the means to deliver, make sense of, interact with, and share that information in various ways.

In today’s terms and with today’s dominant technology, of course, we’re talking about the internet.

Letter to the Chairman and Commissioners1
Federal Communications Commission (FCC), U.S.A.

Chairman Genachowski:

I was the paid editor and de facto wordsmith for a group that was in [some small] part responsible for making “personal computers” what they are today. In their vision, as I understood it, PCs would serve as a powerful tool that could help to level society’s playing field and in many ways lessen, or make less powerful, the stranglehold of poverty, lack of education and class distinction.
I believe network neutrality to be a required factor in a democratic, digital age. Its legal status should be rightly understood as inextricably related to freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to assemble. In every meaningful way it shares the attributes of those freedoms, which we champion and cherish.

We should similarly protect network neutrality, and continue to educate ourselves and others to its importance.

Thank you,

Marlin Ouverson
former editor for People’s Computer Company publications Dr. Dobb’s Journal and Recreational Computing.

Submitted 8 January 2010 via forms at the FCC website.

Even without the internet, no PC is an island, for it connects with the world via its users and peripherals. Still, the PC with an internet connection is today’s most vivid and visible example of giving people unobstructed access to many sources of information and ways to compare, evaluate and filter those sources. This enables vast numbers of people to become better informed and increases their opportunities to practice critical thinking. They can witness and participate in ad hoc public discourse, more able than ever to base their life decisions and world view in the rich compost of plurality, collective forethought and hindsight, and public feedback.

More than consuming information, people increasingly publish their own contributions to the global store of wisdom, knowledge, opinion and folklore in varying proportions. For a moment, step back to notice how active, public participation makes a net culture, or groups of cultures, and consider how the related systems and services undergo change, innovation and evolution. For the internet is yet young and has been evolving since its inception — not only in the content it serves, but in its structure and all its underpinnings.

Human beings continue to make legal, economic and technical decisions about the network that affect all of us, that determine how the information pipelines work. If we think of those people at all, it probably is with an out-of-my-league, defer-to-their-judgment attitude. We assume their decisions are well informed, are in our best interest and are impartially fair. And it appears our faith usually is justified, though it might be asking much from faceless people whose names we do not know.

The once-silent majority might become quite vocal if their freedom of information is denied, no matter whether the data they seek is mundane, ridiculous or life changing. Not many users care about packet switching and protocols, but plenty of them will care very much if they learn their provider is filtering (i.e., censoring) certain content: make a certain social network unavailable or deny access to one maps-and-navigation service in favor of another, and they may rise to action.

“…[network neutrality is] inextricably related to freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to assemble. In every meaningful way it shares the attributes of those freedoms, which we champion and cherish.”

Thus we encounter the principle of network neutrality. Loosely speaking, this asserts that anyone’s request for information over the internet is as important as anyone else’s request, and that nothing in the infrastructure will treat some resources as more important or more accessible than others. This rather simple premise drives engineering decisions, financial concerns, political debate and philosophical discussion. It is what makes the internet so serviceable in our vision of PCs as democracy amplifiers and as tools that empower individual users regardless of those users’ unique environments and backgrounds.

Re-read any early book about the new information society, remember what we hoped it would accomplish even before someone started calling it the information superhighway. Not long before the internet, buying a set of encyclopedias for the family was an investment that many purchased in oft-difficult installments for their children’s futures. (We browsed ours for fun, before video games, and sometimes they provided quality time with dad, foraging together, thirsty for facts of no immediate consequence but that gave flesh to distant horizons.) Or imagine two or three lifespans ago: no library nearby and few or no personal books. Letters were a rarity, often kept tucked away, prized. We are now living, to some degree, the life visionaries were forecasting and shaping a scant few decades ago. Deus ex machina: suddenly there is an “internet cafe” in Lhasa, Tibet!

What would the USA’s founding fathers do?

Free speech and free access to information are two sides of the new coin of the realm. But we forget this has not always been the natural order, that it still is not the case in some areas. A hard-won and partly serendipitous series of events led to today’s unprecedented ease of access to information of all types, and to an immensely magnified power to broadcast our thoughts, be they profound or mundane, across the land and around the world.

Some nations have realized this enabling technology must be equally accessible to all people, or else any disparities in their populations could become magnified. The less privileged, already struggling to stay on society’s common playing field, would fall farther behind. So a few countries have begun legislating freedom of information for their citizenry and specifically support free speech on the internet. Finland had the foresight to tackle the thorny issue of mandating a minimum transmission speed. Realizing that lack of, specifically, high-bandwidth connections can be a handicap in some circumstances, it became the first nation to “declare broadband Internet access a legal right.”

The USA does not lead the fight for freedom of access to information, but its FCC has expressed the intention to do so.1 Commercial and political opponents of a net neutrality act have launched campaigns to convince us the internet must be saved from government legislation. But that would be like saying the First Amendment interferes with freedom of the press. Failure to similarly secure net neutrality would mean providers could ban certain content, unduly restrict bandwidth (aka throttling) and otherwise limit, filter or deny information services based on ability to pay and other, more-arbitrary factors. In a normal service-as-commodity business model, that might make sense. But when we come to understand the pervasive power of information and realize unhindered access to it is a fundamental human right in any egalitarian society, we must apply different, more-noble and less-commercial standards to its governance, as we do for freedom of speech, the right to privacy and freedom of assembly, for example.

The United Nations goes so far as to state that freedom of access to information is a basic human right:

logo: United Nations Human Rights Council on network neutrality (UNHRC)

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

That this Declaration was adopted in 1948 does not detract from the contemporary work of the United Nations specifically in defense of freedom of information for all people. Indeed, the world stage when the UDHR was drafted must have sharply underscored why the free flow of information must never be impeded.

Parties more concerned with profit2 might make decisions that, perhaps unintentionally, erode the foundations of network neutrality as greatly as special interests with overtly personal, political, financial or religious agendas might do so willfully. For example, AOL is reported to have, at one time, blocked e-mails whose content included the web domain name of a group opposed to its pricing plans. In another case, a telcom giant is said to have blocked text messages related to an anti-abortion issue — even if they were sent to someone who had asked to receive them.3/

Still, internet service providers and law-enforcement authorities would like a way to legally restrict, for example, peer-to-peer networks used to distribute pirated copies of copyrighted materials, including music, software and movies. And whether or not hateful speech is a protected right in your country, as a lamentable but legal exercise of free speech, the principles as they pertain to the internet must be divined and encoded in law, with the awareness that the eyes of the world are on these situations more than ever was possible before the digital age.

Striking the delicate balance between freedom and social responsibility is not impossible, it is not even an unfamiliar task.4 A legal code must develop to define the broad issues, then legal processes shaped by that code can evolve to address the hair-splitting arguments that will ensue. We do not have to address all such issues at once, we even can leave that work to others. If we only ensure the democratic foundations of network neutrality, our descendants can build upon them.

Video: USA Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s important Internet Freedom Speech at George Washington University touches on many points in this essay. (2011; 45 mins.)

Most of the internet is wide-open terrain whose fruits are available to anyone with an internet connection. Traditional barriers to full participation in society, like race, class, gender and age, are irrelevant and are largely ignored or invisible in the online world. There are members-only zones and self-serving interests, but people largely come and go as they wish. The cost of exercising free speech online has become negligible with the development of web applications and financial models that support free blogs and social networking, for example.

We might be dismayed, but are not really surprised, if a repressive government censors the internet content available to its citizens or cuts online communications during times of civil unrest. But we fail to grasp the implications of the business practices of our own internet service providers and of the political machinations around internet regulation and infrastructure. We owe it to society, to the coming generations and to ourselves to be vigilant, to be interested, to be alert for conditions that could turn a human right into a commodity subject only to the rules of commerce and influence.

Digital democracy and essential human rights

Copyright © 2009, 2010 by Marlin Ouverson. All rights reserved.

First posted: 30 October 2009
Added letter to FCC: 8 Jan 2010
Added video presentation by U.S.A. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: 2011


1. We note with gravity the concern expressed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation that the USA’s FCC does not have explicit regulatory authority over the internet, although it may claim such authority as part of its ancillary jurisdiction. EFF urges great caution over allowing the FCC to act in this particular way, stating, “‘net neutrality’ might very well come to be remembered as the Trojan Horse that allowed the FCC take over the Internet.”

2. Consumers might understand why their internet service provider (ISP) would want to charge extra to stream large-format, high-definition video over the internet, even though that path probably leads to monthly ISP charges akin to traditional utility fees based on quantity consumed, perhaps with time-of-day and day-of-week rate escalators.

3. These and other examples, including some involved corporate giants like Comcast, AOL, and Verizon, can be found at the Wikipedia page about data discrimination.

4. For example, the European Union has adopted wording that attempts to allow containment of illegal activity while still protecting the democratic principles embodied in internet neutrality as a governing philosophy.

Network Neutrality and Democracy
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Network Neutrality and Democracy
Network neutrality is related to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to assemble. In significant ways it shares the attributes of those freedoms, which we cherish.
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