Pugwash: Vagueness of net neutrality

Credit: David Franklin Credit: David Franklin

This week, Pugwash set out to debate the societal implications of net neutrality, first by defining exactly what net neutrality is.

One conception of net neutrality centers around the idea that no information sent over the Internet can be prioritized above other information for any reason. Other definitions say that different types of media can be prioritized as long as the information within that medium is treated equally.

For example, it would be reasonable to prioritize videos over images as long as all video information was prioritized equally, and all image information was prioritized equally. These two definitions seem to directly contradict each other, but the basic idea remains the same. The debate surrounding net neutrality centers on whether Internet service providers (ISPs) have the right to treat packets of information that go across the web differently due to the information in and about the packet.

A lot of corporate interests are at stake when it comes to net neutrality, and much of the information surrounding it is heavily biased. The idea of a neutral source of information and communication sounds like an obviously noble pursuit, and companies that support net neutrality — as Google once did — prefer that perception. ISPs and others in the broadband mix, such as Google, now feel that net neutrality puts them and the Internet at risk. Corporate backers of this debate usually have monetary motives, so it is hard to truly assess the risk to the average citizen due to net neutrality.

There are a few points to be made by both sides for or against net neutrality. Most people who support net neutrality believe that it prevents discrimination against content from specific servers. In their view, net neutrality allows for the free flow of information across the Internet without service providers getting to decide what everyone gains from the net.

They also believe that net neutrality will allow consumers to know how their ISPs are managing their Internet and will create transparency. Many people also believe that net neutrality stifles innovation when larger corporations with more resources can more effectively lobby ISPs to have their content preferred over the content of sites that are not as well funded.

On the other hand, many people believe that net neutrality poses a threat to the Internet. They think it diminishes the right of ISPs to free speech.

Further, since it minimizes profits from broadband, many think that it does not provide incentives for ISPs to continue to improve the Internet in what is not a very competitive market. Others say that the ISPs are private organizations and, since the Supreme Court ruled that establishing net neutrality isn’t something the government can do, ISPs have no incentive to adhere to the values of net neutrality since any free speech claims on the side of Internet users are not something to which ISPs have to respond.

The issue covers a broad spectrum of policy and societal implications due to its vacuous definition, and the corporate representations of the issue don’t make life easy for someone attempting to parse the virtues and detriments of net neutrality. However, with an information system that is vital to so many people’s lives, it is an issue worth thinking critically about.