Stop Calling It Neutrality

Usually, when anyone in government tries to do anything about issues of equality or fairness, the techie-libertarian reaction is to complain about "legislating equal outcomes" and invoke the spectre of Harrison Bergeron as proof. (Hint: it's fiction!) For some reason, "neutrality" doesn't get the same reaction even though it's a strongly related concept. Thus, when the FCC announced new network-neutrality rules, the reaction was mostly positive. I won't say that self interest and/or pure hatred of the last-mile oligopolists have caused principle to be abandoned, but they certainly have caused that principle to be modified or attenuated.

Let's get one thing straight right at (or at least near) the start: I'm not opposed to neutrality in the common etymologically and historically based meaning of that word. What I'm opposed to is "neutrality" as a label for policies that don't result in more actual neutrality, and often don't even seem intended to have that effect. That's a bit too much Orwellian doublespeak for me.

Past network-neutrality rules or proposals have often seemed broken to me because of the specific ways that they would have affected network operators. Those rules, based in technical ignorance (and some exploitation of that ignorance by interested parties), would have ruled out legitimate network-management practices and either broken things or pushed them in a direction contrary to actual neutrality. This time around, the problem is not so much that the rules are broken as that they're incomplete. Kieren McCarthy puts it pretty well.

There's been no Damascene conversion; the FCC hasn't suddenly discovered it must fight for the people's rights: it's simply realized that it's time to serve new masters.

You are not the intended beneficiary of these rules. If you benefit at all, that's an accident. What you are is (still) a commodity. Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon rather predictably tried to structure things so that your internet addiction benefited themselves most of all. They went a little too far. The Facebook, Google, and other rival families decided they deserved a bigger cut of that action, and they used the mechanisms of regulatory capture to get it. What a big win for the rest of us.

What happens when we stop making this "neutrality" concept so strangely specific in who it affects and how? Will Google still be our champion when someone decides that search results (and accompanying ads) should be governed by "neutrality" rules instead of Google's own? I don't like the SEO crowd any more than you do, but if you want to be consistent about this "neutrality" idea that's a logically necessary outcome. What happens when Google and Amazon have to be "neutral" about how they handle different phones and tablets, instead of limiting features however they want? I recently found out that Amazon instant video won't play on my tablet, even though it will on Amazon's own Fire tablets. Clearly it's not a technical issue. It's a clear violation of "neutrality" for their own benefit. Regulatory burdens always seem lightest when they fall on others (especially those we dislike), don't they?

I could come up with a dozen more examples easily. Maybe such a broad application of the "neutrality" principle would actually be a good thing. I actually think that might be the case, but that's a topic for a more philosophical kind of post. The only point I'm trying to make here is that we shouldn't let Google's and others' selective and self-serving definition of "neutrality" cloud our thinking about these issues. This isn't really neutrality we're talking about. It's regulation of one group, in one way, that might or might not bring us closer to true neutrality.

We've taken one step, which I believe to be in the right direction. Just don't assume that those pretty-sounding words mean the next step will also be in the right direction. Having a common enemy is not the same as having a friend. The "neutrality" propaganda is still propaganda, and a habit of accepting such manipulation (even in a good cause) has its own ill effects. Don't let the PR teams, who have surely slaved away night and day to build an effective Neutrality™ brand, get away with it.

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