Thirty years ago, in 1985, the historian Mel Kranzberg proposed a “series of truisms” starting with Kranzberg’s first law: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”
Eighteen years later, in 2003, the law professor Timothy Wu coined the term “network neutrality” to refer to a “a system of beliefs about innovation.” Wu characterized defenders of this system of beliefs as “Internet Darwinians.” He approved of their theory of innovation—namely, that the Internet should be “indifferent both to the physical communications medium ‘below’ it, and the applications running ‘above’ it.” As a result, Wu argued, network neutrality was an “attractive” and “suitable goal of Internet communications policy.”
The simple version of my argument here is: listen to Kranzberg, and be wary of Internet Darwinians. Technologies aren’t neutral, so we shouldn’t defend norms or make laws that pretend they are.
The more complicated version of my argument is that the very concept of “neutrality” is a fantasy—one that can be very effective to mobilize support, but dangerous for guiding policy toward the technologies we use, the people who care for them, and the institutions that abuse them.
My thinking starts with a debate amongst historians around a related concept, “objectivity,” which fell on hard times in the latter decades of the 20th century. Professional historians had grown skeptical that they could occupy a “view from nowhere.” Objectivity, detachment, and neutrality were not qualities that one should expect from historians; instead, they were qualities that should be historicized themselves—as was ably demonstrated by historians such as Peter Novick and Thomas Haskell. In history as in a variety of other fields such as journalism, claims that an account was “objective” or “unbiased” were not to be trusted; instead, they were warnings that something sinister was afoot.
During the same era, scholars of technology working in a variety of fields—including Kranzberg and his friends in the Society for the History of Technology—demonstrated how technologies of the past, present, and future advanced value-laden visions of social order. For scholars and activists alike, the trick was to understand how technologies could embody specific values, and how people might bend a technological trajectory toward a different set of values.
What can these obscure historiographical discussions tell us about network neutrality? The topic has been hotly debated for years, and I cannot possibly resolve or even summarize the debate in the limited space I have here. As a political slogan, “net neutrality” has proven to be enormously effective. But as a framework for Internet governance, it leaves much to be desired. The seductive language of “neutrality” has, in my view, obscured two significant problems. The first problem is one of misdirection: by focusing on the motives of Internet service providers, it draws attention away from abusive and unscrupulous practices elsewhere in Internet-centric firms. It is no coincidence that Google, a firm regularly under the disapproving gaze of American and European regulators, is a leading supporter of net neutrality.
The second problem goes deeper, to fundamental human values that are obscured with the self-righteous rhetoric of “neutrality.” Wu and his fellow defenders of net neutrality hold innovation as their highest value. These Internet Darwinians believe that a neutral network is simply a means to innovative ends. Here, as elsewhere, we should worry about policies that champion innovation at the expense of other values, such as maintenance or justice. By reducing information infrastructures to mere tools that Google, Netflix, and their users can exploit as they wish, the proponents of “net neutrality” also diminish the abilities, ideas, and autonomy of the information labor responsible for making networks work.
I could go on, but I’m over my word count and it would be better to invite responses and rejoinders. For now, my bottom line is that Internet policy “post-neutrality” should provide avenues to resist information monopolies and to support information labor.