3:1 — Post-Neutrality — Post 1 of 3


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.

23 thoughts on “3:1 — Post-Neutrality — Post 1 of 3

  1. Pingback: 3:1 — Post-Neutrality –Post 3 of 3 | Installing (Social) Order

  2. This comment shows the limits of the “net neutrality” concept, and the accompanying calls for the FCC to exercise jurisdiction using the old Title II rules. From an institutional perspective, the concerns you list are more properly under the jurisdiction of the Antitrust Division in DoJ or consumer protection mission of the FTC. In my view, Phil Weiser at Colorado has offered the most lucid approach – and he did so almost a decade ago! See for example http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/a-third-way-on-network-neutrality and http://siliconflatirons.com/documents/publications/neutralityLaw/WeiserNextFrontier.pdf. Note his first step is to discard the “neutrality” rhetoric and get to the underlying concerns about competition and consumer protection…


  3. I get the idea of “net neutrality” as actually a contest between the profit-minded interests of telecoms v. Internet giants. Where things begin to get more complex is when you begin to look at the corporate structures. Verizon now owns AOL. AT&T owns DirecTV which owns television networks and creates original programming. And now Google/Alphabet has YouTube with original programming and a fiber ISP/telecom company. Comcast owns NBC, and Netlix and Amazon now make television series. What happens to “net neutrality” as as telecoms and Internet giants converge and become indistinguishable?

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  4. Pingback: 3:1 — Post-Neutrality — Post 2 of 3 | Installing (Social) Order

  5. might be vital than to question the very idea/existence of the “Web” which doesn’t exist anymore (literally speaking) than say Capitalism. Perhaps in the ways that we are now trying to individualize (well if yer selling “personalize) fields like medicine perhaps we need more particularized oversight of differing assemblages. Indeed the economics of online activity is parasitic on off the web markets much as (sometimes just as) financialization has proven to be, part of why the bubble-dreams of growth/prosperity need to be challenged as well.


  6. 2 thoughts:

    1. I’ve had a lot (too much) to say elsewhere about “open” –


    http://arussell.org/open/ (link to my book, Open Standards and the Digital Age)

    2. You’re 100% right that capitalism is not questioned; many of the arguments in this sector often come down to the Wall Street bedrock, which is that the companies need to do things that will keep Wall Street happy, stock prices high, etc. That’s sad, but the major alternative (government ownership) is something that the Internet undermines (see esp. chapters 7 and 8 of my book).


  7. Yes – the specificity is very important, especially with complex technologies like computer networking, where the details really do matter. This is one big problem with the net neutrality movement, where the vision (fantasy) of “neutrality” does not map well onto the underlying technical realities. For valuable technical commentary on the subject, see:

    John Day: “Be Careful What You Wish For” http://hightechforum.org/be-careful-what-you-wish-for-caution-on-net-neutrality/
    Martin Geddes: “Network Neutrality: Nasty or Nice?”
    Martin Geddes: “The FCC’s Rules are Technically Unworkable” http://www.martingeddes.com/the-fccs-net-neutrality-rules-are-technically-unworkable/


  8. It’s a difficult question to answer directly, off the top of my head. But given the long legal context of digital convergence – which involves the collision between the (historically unregulated) computer industry and the (historically regulated) telecom industry, the answer is most certainly, yes. If telecom companies (read: ISPs) can be pushed out of the business of adding value to services (i.e., “fast lanes” and guaranteed quality of service), then that leaves that market open to computer/content companies. Google, Netflix, et al want direct and predictable and unmediated access to customers; when Verizon, Comcast et al establish different tiers of service, this interferes with the business plans of Google/Netflix/etc. So, “net neutrality” is a way to take the fight to the ISPs, and to define the terrain of conflict in a particular way.

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  9. Yes – and recognizing this point can push all of us to ask questions that discourses of “neutrality” and “objectivity” seek to close off.


  10. I’m on board with this, too, mostly because it emphasizes that political and technical design decisions already have been made prior to the production and use of a particular technology. I think there is a lot to admire in the “users shape technology” literature, but I also think that by the time users are involved, the decisions or uses they could possibly make already are constrained. Body cameras are a great example of this. (btw it’s encouraging to see someone on Intel’s payroll making thing case.)


  11. It’s *very* interesting to see this post, which uses insights from historians of technology and STS scholars but applies them in a spiritual context!


  12. part of why it might be better to talk about specific machines/people/etc than about “technology” or such, if the topic/subject at hand is actually a particular speech-act (or the like) lets start from there, maybe?


  13. Under point one: that net neutrality is a smokescreen primarily useful for distracting and mis-directing — have you seen evidence that this is the motive of the pro-neutral (itself not a neutral stance) supporters?


  14. just reminds me in the US of the broader debates between Repuglicans and Democrats around whether or not the role of government is to make sure that the laws of the land shouldn’t keep someone from seeking opportunities (should be so neutral) or should instead try and actively support access/opportunities.


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