Tuesday, 21 April 2009


*Which* “Net Neutrality” are you talking about?

Steven Macklin over at Hold the Mayo linked a video by author and screenwriter Andrew Klavan about what is increasingly the liberal answer to conservative arguments: “Shut Up!”[1]  (And while I can’t play videos, fortunately Steven did a transcript.)

Klavin’s topic is certainly familiar to anyone who has had dealings with the left:

The left has been making the “Shut Up” argument at least since the 70’s, when it became clear that all their other arguments had failed.  Since it was the only argument remaining to them, they had to invent different ways to say it.
...and he proceeds to list the ways. Most are familiar and accurate (characterizing opponents as “racists”or “fascists,” declaring some ideas as “hate speech,” then using the force of government or institutions to forbid expressing them). But one sentence rang false:
A book called “A Manifesto for Media Freedom” by my City Journal pal Brain C. Anderson and Adam D. Fhierer describes how high-level Dems also support a plan with another Orwellian name. “Net Neutrality” it’s called, that would try to force conservatives to “Shut Up” online as well.
I’ve run into this before, but I had discounted it as confusion or a lack of understanding of the issue.  But now that it’s popped up again (and since somebody has put this interpretation into a book), it’s time we define our terms to be certain of what we’re arguing about.  Because, if  misunderstood, argument over “Net Neutrality” could drive an unnecessary wedge between the libertarian geeks and the conservatives.

How, you say?  Read on...

What has happened is this: Klavin and others like him have confused “net neutrality” with a concept that’s more familiar to non-techies: The so-called “Fairness Doctrine.”

I won’t review the Fairness Doctrine and its history here.  (This Wikipedia article is a reasonably accurate summary.)  In short, it’s a mid-20th Century concept of mandated “equal treatment” of “controversial issues,” its excuse being scarcity of communication resources.  When it was in force, it affected only broadcasters, and was applied at the station level.[2]  At its core, it is a First Amendment abomination, because in the name of “fair treatment” it can actually mandate speech.  It is significant that the Fairness Doctrine never applied to newspapers or other print publications.

But if you talk to a techie about “network neutrality,” nine times out of ten the Fairness Doctrine will have nothing to do with it.  Wander over to Slashdot and examine the “network neutrality” stories. They’re not about speech.  Instead there’s article after article concerned with equal treatment of different kinds of network traffic.  What’s the argument about?  Basically, it pits the internet users (including the major content creators) against the large internet service providers: Google vs. AT&T, if you will.  Users and content creators generally prefer that the ISPs be treated as common carriers, forbidden to discriminate between types of traffic.  “Equal treatment for all packets,” they say.  On the other hand, the carriers argue that they should be allowed to handle different types of traffic differently in the name of “good network management.”  The conflict arises because the users suspect that operators of such a “tiered internet” would degrade its service to subscribers unwilling to pay the necessary danegeld, and to anyone offering content that might compete with the carriers’ own offerings.  Last August, TechCrunch’s Eric Schonfeld produced a good summary of the positions: The Net Neutrality Debate All On One Page.

So we have two separate issues, each centered on its own idea.

First, the (older) one of mandated “fair” speech, a concept libertarians and conservatives generally find abhorent.

Second, the newer “equal treatment of all packets” concept, favored by most techies and libertarians,[3] and, in the past, abbreviated “net neutrality.”

But now it appears that the left is abandoning “Fairness Doctrine” for “Network Neutrality.”  Corruption of language?  Perhaps.  Convenient, too, as Network Neutrality (in its original sense) had already gained a large body of vocal, tech-savvy supporters.  Perhaps the left could grab the reins on that issue and change the focus- just a little bit!  Instead of “fairness,” with its unfortunate implication that there would be someone making judgements about what’s “fair” (and enforcing penalties accordingly),  there would be “neutrality.”  And, oh, just a minor thing, it would be about websites, not packets.  Practically identical- no difference at all!

Meanwhile, the carriers might hope for the confusion to go the other way:  “Network Neutrality?  Why, that’s that Communistic idea that would require  anyone who quotes Daily Pundit to quote Daily Kos, too.  It’s not just anti-business, it’s Anti-Freedom-of-Speech!”

So where are we?  I seriously doubt that it is possible to undo the damage and clarify the confusion.  Although we can be Right by being careful to use the correct term for each concept, there are too many others for whom confusion is a benefit, not a bug.  We can expect the disingenuous to capitalize on that confusion to create conflict where there should be none, and to conceal their actual agenda.  And we must be prepared to promptly call them on it.


[1] The video is a Pajamas Media original. It’s here (sans transcript).

[2] If applied to the web, it would be at the website level.

[3] Some libertarians and pro-business conservatives (including the folks at the Cato Institute) disagree with mandated Network Neutrality on the grounds that regulation is bad in general, and that companies ought to be allowed to offer services as they see fit. Opponents of that position cite the monopoly or duopoly position of the incumbent ISPs as reason not to trust them to do the best (as opposed to “most profitable”) for their subscribers.

Posted by: Old Grouch in Rants at 01:10:14 GMT | No Comments | Add Comment
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