On Net Neutrality

The US government's reversal of a decision to treat the internet as a "basic utility" has been attacked for being a boon for major corporations. But, in this long read, SSP national secretary Connor Beaton argues socialists should also be massively concerned, proposing we put forward our own bold vision for the internet...

If you've spent much time online recently, you will likely have read some reference to a major victory by US telecoms companies in the latest round of a long-running battle over “net neutrality”, shorthand for the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data equally.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in announcing the reversal of a 2015 decision to treat Internet access as a basic utility (with the limited degree of regulation that entails in the US), made the excessive and Orwellian claim that it had acted to “restore Internet freedom”.

For socialists, the significance is not obvious. Much of the (almost exclusively online) campaigning on the issue has warned that the looser regime could see companies discreetly paying ISPs to make their services run faster than their competition. For example, Netflix could pay BT to stream their content faster than that of Amazon Prime or BBC iPlayer, giving Netflix a commercial advantage.

Against the backdrop of the Trump administration's major policy planks – the racist travel ban now in force, the tearing up of climate treaties, assaults on organised labour, the push for war on the Korean peninsula – the speed at which you can buffer House of Cards seems like a low priority for a socialist movement already stretched on activist power and resources. The messaging of the largest campaign groups is unlikely to persuade socialists otherwise.

Campaign project Battle for the Net warns that an attack on net neutrality would “amount to a tax on every sector of the American economy” and “extinguish the startups and independent voices” – emphasising the risk that ISPs would throttle middle-class America’s ability to generate profit online.

Save the Internet, another campaign group, issues a vague warning that an attack on net neutrality could affect the work of activists for “racial justice”, but goes on to assign at least equal weight to the impact on “small business owners, startups and entrepreneurs, who rely on the open internet to launch their businesses, create markets, advertise their products and services, and reach customers”.

These groups, steeped in the stiflingly dull political culture of middle-class America, don't fully understand the high-stakes conflict over the future of the Internet, obscuring the fact that these aren't just issues of civil liberties (practically a slur in left traditions that see only bread-and-butter issues as legitimate), but also ones of deep material significance for the radical left.

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Three years ago, economist Ann Pettifor made a throwaway remark at a political festival in Ullapool that lingered at the back of my mind. Tracing the left’s demand for nationalisation of the railways to an ideological drive to take the commanding heights of the economy out of private control, she quipped: “But Google is at the commanding heights of the economy today.”

The history of the World Wide Web (the part of the Internet you access via a web browser) is remarkably short, starting around the same time the USSR was disintegrating. Within that narrow period, what we today understand as key web services have been cornered by massive monopolies: Facebook has seen the end of Friendster, Myspace and Bebo, while Google has stared down Ask Jeeves and Yahoo. There is no convincing façade of a competitive market for what are now widely considered basic services, without which the web would be unrecognisable.

The consequence of this has been to turn a tiny handful of private companies anchored in the US into some of the Western world's most powerful gatekeepers of information. At the peak of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring in 2011-12, a popular understanding of the Internet was a caricature, in which the technology was presented as both emancipatory and, crucially, neutral – freely linking person to person. For a long time, the concept associated most strongly with internet access has been that of ‘free exchange of information’.

The reality is the web as we know it has been inescapably shaped by capitalism. Liberal advocates of net neutrality are on the cusp of understanding this, instinctively resisting a blatant attempt to endanger the ‘free exchange of information’ by placing it at the mercy of a cartel of private ISPs. They fail to realise it’s already at the mercy of another profit-seeking cartel: Google (worth over $600 billion), Facebook ($500 billion), Twitter ($10 billion) and so on.

Their collective power is well-illustrated by the amount of pressure increasingly being applied to these companies to define and enforce the boundaries of acceptable speech. This pressure comes both from the political establishment (for example in the crusade against ‘fake news’) and from users themselves (for example in calls to disable the accounts of trolls and harassers).

The casualties are so far relatively limited, but there have been significant developments in 2017: Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik were banned from advertising on Twitter and deranked by Google’s algorithms; far-right group Britain First was purged from Twitter and faces a similar crackdown on Facebook.

In December, Twitter adopted stricter rules banning users affiliated with organisations that “use or promote violence against civilians to further their causes”, but made clear it does not believe that internationally-recognised states and their armies fit that definition. The affected organisations will correctly interpret these moves as a serious setback in allowing them to reach the more than four in ten people in Britain who use social media as a news source.

This represents a trend whereby, instead of acting on the foot of court orders (i.e. enforcing decisions of the state), social media and web companies are increasingly expected to proactively moderate what users say and see. This can be understood as the large-scale, covert privatisation of decision-making on what is acceptable and unacceptable speech, only escaping serious critical scrutiny from the left because its targets have so far been principally on the right.

But this doesn’t mean that other social media users are safe. Crimes of Britain, a popular page describing atrocities of the British Empire, and all six of its administrators, have recently been suspended by Facebook for allegedly promoting hate speech. Israel’s racist Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (below) boasts that Facebook accedes to 95 per cent of the Israeli government’s (non-statutory) requests to remove Palestinian content critical of Israel. Reddit, having moved to ban neo-Nazis, has quietly banned antifascists with the identical, bland reasoning they “promote violence”.

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If it’s the case that the average person in Great Britain will spend more cumulative hours on social media over the course of their lifetime than in the pub, we have to fiercely resist efforts to depoliticise online spaces. A worst-case scenario for our movement, which faces the inherent difficulties of any challenge to the status quo, is social media platforms becoming increasingly sanitised and imbalanced even further towards entertainment over information-sharing.

Capitalism has already had an impressive influence on how social media works. For example, major platforms now rarely display posts in simple chronological order. Facebook led the way on this in September 2011, just five months before the company was floated on the stock market with a record $104 billion valuation.

Twitter, from February 2016, altered its timeline to include old tweets and tweets liked by other users. Instagram adopted an algorithm-based timeline in June 2016. Each change has provoked a backlash from users, but is never reversed: this is because these decisions are driven by profit, rather than an effort to improve user experience.

The complex algorithms underpinning what you see on your Facebook or Twitter timeline are designed to maximise the amount of time and energy you sink into the platform, bolstering the respective company’s advertising revenue. This is even the function of seemingly innocent features such as Facebook’s iconic ‘Like’ button, which delivers dopamine boosts to the receiving user, part of the basis for a growing problem of social media addiction among predominantly young people. Facebook has a clear profit incentive to keep users hooked on its services.

The profit motive is also what is driving these companies to develop technology like “sentiment analysis”, whereby users’ data is used to judge their mood and alter their experience on the platform accordingly. In a leaked report presented by Facebook to one of Australia’s top banks, the social media giant boasted that it could detect when its young users feel insecure, stressed or anxious, though later insisted it was not (yet) allowing advertisers to target users on that basis. (Facebook has already had to apologise for running secret psychological tests on its users).

It’s possible to hold a more optimistic outlook on the state of the Internet by focusing on the vibrancy and growth of the free-and-open-source software (FOSS) movement and collaborative projects like Wikipedia.

Software like the Linux kernel, which now powers Android smartphones, has been collectively built and maintained by over 12,000 programmers working either on their own initiative or for one of over 200 companies and organisations who support the project. Wikipedia, a non-profit project relying on voluntary contributions and donations, has built up a library of over 40 million articles in 299 different languages since it launched in 2001.

This is certainly an illustration of the Internet’s potential, and a useful counterpoint to those who would argue that profit and greed are the sole drivers of human progress and innovation. Unfortunately, neither the FOSS movement nor Wikipedia pose a serious threat to their opposite: the Internet-for-profit. Like cooperatives under capitalism, they are doomed to exist on the fringes of a system in which they are inherently disadvantaged and unable to compete effectively without compromising on their original ideals.

Having steadily eroding Internet Explorer’s virtual monopoly over the course of several years, Firefox, the free-and-open-source browser project developed by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, was quickly deposed as the world’s second-most popular web browser by Google Chrome following a short, aggressive marketing campaign by Google. Although Chrome’s source code is drawn from the free-and-open-source Chromium project, the function of Chrome’s growth has been to reinforce Google’s hegemony over key web services – locking users into Google Search, encouraging them to create Google accounts and make purchases from the Chrome Web Store.

It’s not even the case that all in the FOSS movement would want to challenge the concentration of online power among private companies In spite of having what would seem to be a collectivist and socialistic ethos, the movement is politically broad, even including right-wing libertarians comfortable with the coexistence of profit-seeking monopolies alongside collaborative projects. (Richard Stallman, widely seen as the father of the movement, himself says: “The Free Software movement [is] concerned with one specific issue: freedom and community for software users. Libertarians are welcome in the Free Software movement, if they support its goals.”)

This ideological gap puts the onus on socialists to develop and articulate a coherent alternative vision of the internet, in which the ideal of ‘free exchange of information’ can be fully realised without being made secondary to the ability of private monopolies to generate profit, and in which we neither delegate more power to private business nor return to a deregulated “Wild West” model in which we simply accept that women, ethnic minorities and queer people will be driven off popular online platforms through targeted harassment and abuse without recourse.

The alternative is socialised and democratic web infrastructure, and millions of net neutrality supporters are there to be won to the case. Socialists should engage net neutrality advocates with the simple message: Mark Zuckerberg is as much the enemy as hate figure Ajit Pai of the FCC (below).

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It’s important to stress that support for socialised web services is principally a political demand to be incorporated into a wider socialist programme, not a lifestyle choice to promote among our base. A socialist-led boycott of Facebook and Twitter is no wiser now than a boycott of privately-owned mass media, and we should still try to occupy these spaces, where possible, for propaganda purposes.

It’s useful to varying extents to support and promote alternatives (for example, Mastodon is a free-and-open-source platform which is similar to Twitter to the end-user, but without a central managing authority), but this should be done with recognition of the fact that a mass exodus from private platforms in their favour is unlikely to take place without a massive external stimulus.

The Scottish Socialist Party has, since 2007, committed in its election manifestos to “support for the open source software movement”. Eleven years on, I feel this commitment is dated and limited, and ultimately fails to appreciate that the core principles of the FOSS movement will not become dominant without direct confrontation of the growing power of the web monopolies.

We need to establish the legitimacy as a political demand of bringing both ISPs and the likes of Google, PayPal, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon – the providers of what should be considered basic web services – into democratic public ownership and control, however difficult it seems. US academic Nick Srnicek, who now lectures in digital economy at King’s College London, is an early convert to this idea, correctly explaining: “If we don’t take over today’s platform monopolies, we risk letting them own and control the basic infrastructure of 21st-century society.”

The project of bringing the web monopolies to heel will be difficult, messy, and heavily reliant either on close international co-operation or serious ingenuity and compromise. It’s beyond my ability alone to set out how this can be achieved. This article is written in the spirit of provoking just the start of a serious debate in the Western left on the political and practical issues surrounding ownership and control of online infrastructure from root to branch. The issues are too important to allow it to be left to the likes of Angela Merkel to propose “radical” changes.

At this stage, the goal of public ownership is most useful in orienting us and as a reference point for examining new trends and legislation. The current debate over net neutrality creates a particularly favourable environment for introducing these ideas to public consciousness.

In the immediate term, we can take very small practical steps to break the power of the web monopolies by using free-and-open-source software where practical; swapping private tools for those designed for emancipatory movements, like FireFund and Riseup; and building and sharing our own tools to make technology more widely accessible (for example, COMRADE, the SSP’s bespoke canvassing system, is freely available under a free-and-open-source software license).

These are steps which will limit our exposure as a movement to the dangers inherent in over-reliance on platforms devoid of either meaningful security or democratic scrutiny, even if they will make a very small contribution to the eventual and necessary redistribution of online power.

@CBeatonSSP