Net neutrality, meet Web neutrality

What is sauce for the network goose is sauce for the social media gander.

When Prof Tim Wu coined the phrase “net neutrality” back in 2003, his underlying concern was a valid one. ISPs potentially had unchecked power to “load the dice” of the packet network “casino” to favour particular “gamblers” at the tables. Power corrupts, and the temptation to engage in surreptitious sabotage of business rivals — attempting to compete with the ISP’s own content services — is a real one.

It is unfortunate that he (along with many others) didn’t sufficiently understand the emergent nature of performance in today’s packet networks. The upshot is that meaningfully measuring and enforcing this particular form of “neutrality” is mathematically intractable: telling apart “loaded dice” from “unfortunate coincidences” is impossible. Furthermore, packets are not like packages or people, and therefore do not merit “fair treatment” — at least not where you have duelling applications, each attempting to algorithmically seize the most network resources for its own user’s use.

Nonetheless, the “net neutrality” idea caught on with a large segment of the progressive left, and had well-funded campaigns in both the USA and EU to enforce new rules on ISPs. For better or worse (and mostly worse), we now have legal classification and formal regulations that attempt to enforce this undefined and undefinable “neutrality” of packet flows. In theory, if not in practise, content providers are protected from predatory abuses of power by ISPs.

The terrain of public opinion is also fiercely rivalrous. Given that there was such an outcry over what were largely hypothetical problems — actual living examples of blocking and throttling by ISPs being notably rare — it is puzzling that the same progressive left is dead silent over abuses by those software companies whose power they sought to protect. The Silicon Valley giants who fanned the flames of network neutrality have been caught actively engaged in censorship of political opinions that hurt their political allies.

I personally have experienced this on both Twitter (with all kinds of weird and inexplicable behaviours of the platform) and Medium (where I was kicked off entirely, with no due process and no response to my inquiries for specific reasons why). These are not unintentional emergent phenomena — the result of randomness in network buffers under load — but intentionally engineered policies that “load the dice” of public discourse.

A social media follower offered me the phrase “hypocrisy hurricane” as a means of naming the roaring silence of the progressive left against this well-evidenced and manifest abuse of power. It is the textbook definition of fascism: an alliance of corporate and (progressive liberal) state power to deny others (notably conservatives, dissidents, libertarians and Christians) access to their legitimate freedoms of speech and assembly.

That is a stinging accusation, and sadly one that is appropriate to the situation. Selective concern about the abuse of power is worse than no concern at all: it actively favours the unlevelling of the arena in which power is meant to be legitimately debated and divided. The dead silence I have personally experience tells me that some people were only friends to the extent that I subscribed to their own aspirations for membership of a powerful and privileged class. That’s not a friendship worth having, if it is friendship at all.

We have a century and more of applying the principles of common carriage, originating in the transport of physical goods, to the virtual world of telephony, telegrams and texts. It seems to be the appropriate moment to ask whether that should be further extended to include tweets, so that platform users are protected from cheating by platform owners. The bias against certain users and ideas isn’t merely an unfortunate coincidence: the “dice” of debate are being heavily loaded.

Maybe we could even give it a name, since naming things seems to have such potency in getting things done. How about a dose of “Web neutrality”? I am sure that it would find widespread support across the political divide. After all, which free speech advocate — reasonably objecting to corporate censorship and unfair control — would want to be against neutral treatment of people and their ideas on a public platform?