Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Trouble With “Isms”

John Oliver, the grumpy uncle
of pay-cable comedy
John Oliver, a man who’s described his accent as being like “a chimney sweep being put through a wood chipper,” has made Net Neutrality a personal pet issue. After pushing the issue once during the Obama administration, successfully, he came back to the issue again after President Trump appointed Ajit Pai chair of the FCC. For a polemicist famous for his wide-ranging interests, coming back to any issue is significant for Oliver.

For those unfamiliar with Net Neutrality, the concept is simple. Under current regulations, internet service providers have to make all web content equally available. Whether dialing up, say, an obscure blog by a struggling provincial writer (let’s just say), or the web’s most successful commerce sites, speed and accessibility shouldn’t vary. Service providers shouldn’t charge site owners for faster or more reliable consumer access.

Seems simple enough. I thought I supported the principle undividedly. And when a friend, an outspoken Libertarian who believes everything would improve if all top-level rules vanished tomorrow, claimed that Net Neutrality rules were forms of government micromanagement interfering with a system that worked just fine without bureaucratic interference. Let whomever charge whatever to whoever they want! It’s not government’s place to get involved.

To be clear, I don’t buy the anti-neutrality argument. If service providers could charge content providers for superior access, massive corporate systems like Facebook and Google, which between them control half the online advertising revenue for the entire earth, or mega-commerce sites like Amazon, could afford extortionate rates, while struggling artists and shoestring entrepreneurs would get shunted onto second-string connections and forgotten. That includes my friend, a strictly regional business owner.

Jeff Bezos, whose Amazon controls
half the Internet commerce in the world
(Full disclosure: this blog appears on a platform owned by Google. And my book reviews link to Amazon. I couldn’t afford this service if I had to pay out-of-pocket.)

But thinking about it, I realized: I’m protecting the very big against the very big. And so is my friend. As stated, half of all online ad revenue travels through two corporations and their subsidiaries. Google owns YouTube, Zagat, Picasa, and the Android operating system; Facebook owns Instagram, Oculus, and WhatsApp. Just for starters. I’m protecting the already massive from paying to get their product onto my computer screen.

Some Google subsidiaries, like Boston Dynamics, actually produce marketable product. But Google mostly sells ads on their search engine—ads that frustratingly often lead customers to something they already wanted to find. They’re already charging small operators, like those artists and entrepreneurs I mentioned, access to get seen by people like me. Same for Facebook: it’s primarily an ad vendor. And if you don’t buy these two companies’ ads, you probably won’t get seen.

So the Net isn’t Neutral right now.

Nearly a century ago, G.K. Chesterton wrote that, for most citizens, the difference between communism and capitalism is vanishingly small. The only choice is whether we prefer to be ruled by government bureaucrats, or corporate bureaucrats. That’s clearly happening here. On careful consideration, Net Neutrality is essentially protecting the very large corporations, who are imposing their own rules on smaller companies, rules that are proprietary and therefore both invisible and arcane.

So we’re faced with the choice between protectionism, which will ensure Google, Facebook, and to a lesser degree Amazon (which controls half of all Internet commerce) can charge small operators like me to get seen by anybody whatsoever; or Libertarianism, which… um… will make these companies pay Comcast, Time Warner, and Charter Spectrum to continue doing the same thing. On balance, neither choice really protects small operators like me.

G.K. Chesterton thinks your neutrality
rules are sweet and naive
I’ve chosen, at present, not to pay either Facebook or Google for increased visibility on this blog. This means I mainly get seen by people clicking through on my personal Facebook and Twitter accounts, and my daily hits seldom exceed 100 to 150. (Oh, who owns Twitter? It’s also a corporate umbrella; it just hasn’t grown nearly as fast.) I’ve chosen not to kiss corporate ass, and the price I’ve paid is vanishingly small readership. Sad trombone.

Both “isms” depend on the premise that, if we create the appropriately utopian regulatory system (too big? Too small? Any at all?), information will flow freely. Except we need only open our eyes to realize information isn’t flowing freely. The commercially accessible Internet, as it currently exists, is essentially a joint-stock partnership between Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg. There’s no sweet spot of appropriate regulation on the Internet. Because there’s no freedom for information to move on a platform that isn’t already free.

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciate your thoughtful posts, Kevin. I've posted a couple of your essays on my Facebook page. I don't have as much traffic as you do, but maybe it will add one or two people to your "followership."