What is often lost in framing the ongoing Net Neutrality debate as one that pits the Left v. the Right is how both sides are often after the same thing: advancing the corporate agenda. The debate is increasingly eroding the notion of Internet users as citizens instead of just consumers. Sadly, this points to the lack of any real political alternatives or ‘open spaces’ around this issue. But let us examine each side’s position more carefully.
Net Neutrality started as a call from idealist cybernauts to keep the government off the Internet (wait… wasn’t the Internet a government invention to begin with?). The goal was to resist any attempt at censorship, taxes or bureaucratic regulations. Information, after all, wanted to be free! This position was popularized by academics and now, in the Obama age when it is cool to trust the government again, has been transformed into the belief that the real threat comes not from government, but from greedy corporations. Thus, we have the FCC issuing not only a defense of Net Neutrality, but hinting of regulations that would ensure transparency and corporate accountability.
This would indeed be laudable if not for the modern history of the FCC under both Democratic and Republican leadership, which is a history of promoting deregulation in order to make sure that media corporations can become bigger and more profitable monopolies, which in turn gives them unprecedented political power (cf. Bagdikian, Croteau and Hoynes, etc). So in this FCC-approved version of Net Neutrality, you will notice no talk about actually curtailing the power of media conglomerates or empowering citizens to create corporate-free online public spaces. The rhetoric of ‘neutrality’ and ‘transparency’ is there only to guarantee fair competition between monopolies, if by ‘fair’ we mean favorable to the interests of the monopoly with the most effective lobbyists (for instance, at one point the FCC thought it was ‘fair’ to prevent the spread of cable TV, just as later it thought it was ‘fair’ to allow it–funny how they changed their minds!).
Still, this is not enough for the other side (see for instance this or this), the free market techno-libertarians who, in the name of what makes the internet ‘free,’ believe that corporations should not be regulated by the government in any way. These are the people who see capitalism “as the fountainhead of technological innovation and a force for betterment of the human condition” (but wait… wasn’t the government/military the ‘fountainhead’ of the invention known as the Internet?). To them, Net Neutrality–and government regulation in general–is anathema to competition, and we need free market competition to keep those big greedy internet companies in check (except when those companies become ‘too big to fail,’ of course). Interestingly, the end result is the same: more power for the media companies, and less for the citizens, although in this scenario the political class has been cut off altogether.
From the Left, then, the regulation that Net Neutrality proposes simply provides us with a front seat to the battle of the media giants, while not really giving us any power to intervene in the process. From the Right, deregulation is seen as the only way to guarantee competition, even though deregulation creates monopolies which are… well… anti-competitive. In both cases we are positioned as passive consumers, and in both cases corporate interests are well protected. We have created a system where neither regulation nor deregulation interfere with the corporate status quo.
Some might be asking: What right do we have to demand that the Internet not become utterly corporatized? It is, after all, a product of military research and capitalist entrepreneurship! All I’m saying is that as digital networks become–for better or worse–important public spaces, it makes sense to ensure that a substantial part of them remains free of corporate interests, so that we don’t have to hand over our entire social and cultural production to a few corporations. Failing to achieve that, does it makes sense to imagine ways to unthink the network?