Perhaps it's the Emersonian in me, but when I see large numbers of people thinking in lockstep about an issue, I begin to feel a little uneasy. So as FB friend after FB friend have declared the recent Google-Verizon proposal "the end of the Internet as we know it," have signed petitions urging Google not to be evil, and have posted and reposted the same alarmist articles about the apocalyptic impact that would result from the implementation of this proposal, I have begun to ask questions about some of the arguments and the impetus behind them.
1. Would the implementation of this proposal really be the end of Internet as we know it, or the end of the mobile Internet as currently used by a privileged group of a technically-savvy, well-off community of mobile users?
2. Put differently, who does the "we" in the phrase "the end of the Internet as WE know it" refer to?
3. Is the wireless mobile network distributed through cellphone providers like Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint the same as the Internet, or isn't it already a pay for play service with access available to those willing to pay the added fees for 3G or 4G service?
4. How can the current mobile internet be considered to be the same as the wired Internet, when unlike the Internet itself, which can be accessed at libraries, schools, and other places for free, this network is only available via subscription to cellphone service, at a price?
5. Has there ever been anything like "net neutrality" or "a level playing field" in the first place?
6. Does the technical equality of all packets produce an information equality for all users or does the ideology of net neutrality merely facilitate a form of inequality that benefits those with the resources (economic, social, educational, technical) to make more of the Internet than those without those resources?
7. Is there a necessary, definite relationship between the technical form of the Internet and its social, political, cultural uses?
I suppose I could go on, but I think these should do. Don't get me wrong--I am not advocating the Google-Verizon proposal or the creation of pay-for-play fastlanes on the wired, wireless, or mobile Internet (or on any future manifestation we, or Google-Verizon, may not have thought of yet). But I raise these questions to make two points.
First, I would want to suggest that if such a proposal were to be adopted, it would not replace a neutral net but rather the unequal net that currently exists. The issue is not a neutral net as opposed to a biased or unequal net, but the current net inequality as opposed to some other form of net inequality, a form which might very well, as has been argued, be even less equal, less neutral, than the form we have now.
Second, I would argue that technical neutrality, particularly insofar as it is defined in terms of the speed by which packets move across the Internet, is not the same as cultural, social, or political neutrality. The Internet comprises so much more than the switching of packets, but you wouldn't know that from listening to the current debate. The technical defense of net neutrality obscures or erases the multiple forms of inequality and non-neutrality that this defense would seek to protect.