Per Wikipedia, “Network Neutrality” is the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. Essentially, the concept calls for a level playing field for all users, whether they be individuals or providers of high-bandwidth services like Netflix, HBO, etc., or whoever.
From an egalitarian perspective, the answer as to whether net neutrality is a good idea or not is easy: of course, it is good.
From the perspectives of companies which wish to provide high-bandwidth services, as well as the customers who are willing to pay extra to receive those services in the best possible quality, the answer is not so clear. Why, for instance, can’t such services as Netflix, and thus the customers who use them, pay more so that high-access-streaming channels can be built up, taking traffic off of the other lines, thus being better for everyone? Whether this is a legitimate characterization of the argument or whether that’s how it would work out in the real world, one can see that the subject is a little more complicated than the simple idea of equal treatment. And it’s a lot more complex than that, even on a technical level.
Throw in the power (and corruptibility) of government agents, the obligation of service providers to make a profit for their shareholders and thus purchase government agents to gain advantage, the carelessness of the general population to pay attention and judge a complex issue, and all the other factors in the mix, and we’re left with a frustrating mess that seems to have no solution. I, myself, can and have argued the matter from both sides with equal passion.
But what if we take a few steps back and look at the assumptions which might be making all this truly unresolvable based on the current debate? Let’s try.
Let’s start by going all the way back, to consider what the nature of a truly neutral medium would have to be.
Put in somewhat simpler terms, let’s look at net neutrality as the effort to arrive at a truly neutral medium, in which no one is discriminated against BY THE MEDIUM ITSELF based on the quality or quantity of the communication they wish to engage in.
To get an idea of what I mean by this, let’s draw a comparison to another vital medium through which much communication travels, with which we all have vast experience, and which is a truly neutral medium: air.
You and I can stand across from each other and say whatever we like, be it loving or vile, and the air does not care. The air dutifully does it’s job of passing the sounds along from place to place. I can shout to a vast audience, or equally from a lonely mountaintop in a vain (or not) attempt to be heard by the gods: it’s all the same to the air. I can throw flowers or paper airplanes or bullets and the air can have no moral judgement as to which should pass and which should be stopped. There are only the physical dynamics of the different objects, velocities, temperatures, etc., which determine the flight of each. The air does not have the ability to say, “The flowers are good, so they should have easy passage, but the bullets will only be passed on slowly and reluctantly, if at all.”
Now, if you insult me deeply using the air as a medium, I may decide to retaliate with a blow to discourage you from doing so again. The air will discriminate towards my response only based upon whether my hand is open or closed, the slap coming slightly more slowly because of the difference in air resistance. If you insult me from cover, disguising your voice, I’ll have a harder time discouraging you, but the air doesn’t know or care.
The air does not discriminate as to who breaths it. Saints and sinners, people of peace and war, good intentions and bad, all breath it with equal ease, depending upon their capacity.
Perhaps you get my point by now. In our current society what we commonly refer to as “the Media” is not such a neutral scene. It is common knowledge that news organizations have had a stranglehold on the dissemination of “news” and have used it for decades, in conjunction with government and corporate interests, to color the view of the world for populations at large—i.e., propaganda. This is basically because the means of communication have been very centralized and subject to control. Radio waves are neutral media, but access to them by the general population has been limited by both technology and (more profoundly) centralized political and economic force.
The Internet, as it has come into use, has served as a much more neutral medium. Currently, legacy news and propaganda channels are dying the slow death, as upstart bloggers and videographers apply “death of a million cuts,” exposing their biases and agendas, and delivering information that users find more relevant to themselves and more truthful. Politicians and others in positions of power are losing ground as the power has shifted toward individuals, who can more easily determine when they are being lied to.
But the current structure of the Internet, while better in many ways than anything which has existed before, does not make for a truly neutral medium. Actually, while it makes the shift toward individual freedom of expression much more accessible, it also exposes the individual to liabilities which have never been faced before in all of human history. Exercise of the apparent freedoms comes at the expense of privacy and security of the individual, which ultimately undermines the very freedoms which are apparently being gained. Predictive technologies based upon all the data gathered on individuals and groups make the possibilities of social manipulation and control ever more possible by fewer and fewer individuals.
One doesn’t have to look further than the vast revelations which have been made in the last two years by way of Edward Snowden’s disclosures (whether you gauge them heroic or sinister) to appreciate the velvet glove and iron fist with which the surveillance corporation/state is enclosing the broad population.
There is an apparency of great freedom. But at what cost and how true is that freedom?
(I’m reminded of the great cultural revolution in China, in which Mao said “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” Dissidence and counter-revolution were, for a time, encouraged. Then, once the the trouble spots were identified, millions lost their lives. I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily the course of western civilization, but there is a very large history lesson here to be considered.)
So, let’s look back now on the concept of net neutrality. Is net neutrality even remotely possible with the current structure of the Internet? Are we dealing with any sort of neutral medium? I’d have to say no. Therefore, all the social uproar and political action to get agencies and companies to play nice is of little if any use.
Bitcoin and a number of other decentralizing technologies show some hope, but I’d have to say that they are well behind the curve and are likely to be of only marginal utility in securing greater actual freedom for individuals.
Enter the SAFE Network.
Now, I could easily, and justly, be accused of being fanciful on this score, since the SAFE Network is yet to go live and prove itself. But I can’t help myself. The promise is too great and the vision too clear to let these things sit. The more people who see the vision and help bring it to fruition, the better. Even if we fail.
So, before we examine the SAFE Network, let’s look back at the concept of a neutral medium and examine what the elements of a neutral data storage and communication network would have to be.
1. Secure by default. Anyone who accessed it would be able to do so without compromising their financial or data security. This means that individuals would also have complete personal responsibility for their personal and financial data. Sharing it would be an explicit choice.
2. Privacy by default. Anyone accessing the network would be able to have confidence that whatever they did on the network would be completely private, by default. Any choice to share any private data, even their identity, would be an explicit choice. The exposure of private data shared with another person or group would be limited to the worthiness of the trust placed in those receiving that data. Ideally, there would be capabilities of proving valid identifiers cryptographically without having to share actual identity details, unless necessary or desired.
3. Broad access. It could be freely accessed by individuals with very little technical barrier, and no one could deny use of the network if the individual could pass those technical barriers (i.e., a computing device and internet access).
4. Morally neutral. The network could not be subject to central control as to who uses it or the content of the communications, or data stored or retrieved. (Parallel to the air analogy.) The network would handle all of its standard functions of passing and storing data particles with no means of distinguishing amongst them, except to know what to do with them. This would require that the network be composed of nodes provided by users on the assumption that to have the sort of network desired, it is necessary to supply resources to the network to accomplish its purpose, rather than trying to control it.
5. Resistant to compromise. If compromised, no node in the network would be able to adversely affect the operation of the network at large. If it were compromised, it could reveal no useful information about the network itself or its users.
6. Scalable. Heavy demand for particular services or items would not require the building of separate centralized infrastructure, or use of methods which could discriminate for or against certain traffic. In other words, for a website or video or service which is in high demand, the network would simply deliver it up faster, the more demand there was, and then return to more usual handling when demand slacked.
I’m sure there are other attributes which could fit in this picture of a factually neutral Internet structure, but that’s probably enough to make the point.
These characteristics, and many more, actually ARE characteristics of the SAFE Network as it has been designed and proven-out over the last nine years by the folks at Maidsafe.
Will it work as the design and tests so far promise it will?
Will it fulfill the promise perceived by supporters like me?
Will it, in fact, be a truly neutral medium, where “net neutrality” can actually exist?
We will soon see.
This article was reposted with the permission of author John Ferguson. The original can be found on his site The Crossroad of Project SAFE.