Time to Make Content Neutrality into Law
Nowadays, the main issue are not monopolies, not pricing levels. The issue is free and open space for innovation and the exchange of ideas. A law on internet content neutrality would ensure it.
The previous battle in the war for a free and open Internet was about net neutrality — equal access for all to the plumbing level of the Internet. The next battle is about content neutrality — equal access for all to the content level of the internet. Content neutrality is more important than net neutrality. It is not about what speed is available to what service but about what voices are heard and what are suppressed. It should be made into a law.
I was one of those ministers in charge of information society that pushed hard for enshrining net neutrality into Slovenian law and into EU directives. We had some success. While the net neutrality hardliners would not be entirely satisfied, provisions have been made that ask for internet service providers and telecommunication companies that deal with the lower (plumbing) levels of the internet to treat all traffic equally. And not, for example, give faster lanes to Netflix and slower to YouTube, faster to CNBC.com and slower to CNN.com. A policy has been set up that is making sure that the competition among the service providers remains open and fair.
I define content neutrality as such policy of internet service providers that treats content of all users equally. User content is what a user of a service hosts or publishes to the service. Such as videos, writings, tweets, domain name address-books …
A non-net-neutral internet would discriminate the speed of access to two different services, for example Facebook and Youtube. A non-content-neutral internet would discriminate between different YouTube videos, different Facebook posts, different hosted blogs, different apps in the AppStore, different services running on its cloud, different names in the domain name service … If such a discrimination is not based on technical attributes such as size, processing intensity etc. but is the discrimination based on the meaning of the content then it would constitute a breach of content neutrality.
Content neutrality ensures an open and fair competition of ideas.
Real world examples
A real world analogy to net neutrality would be a highway authority that would offer trucks of one company priority lanes over trucks of another company. Or a post office that would be delivering packages sent by Amazon faster than the packages sent by a small independent merchant. Or an electricity company that would deliver electricity to household A but not to household B.
A real world analogy to content neutrality would be a highway authority that would be inspecting the cargo on the trucks and allow milk to be transported, because it is good and healthy, but trucks with soda would have to turn around, because some believe drinking sugary drinks is bad for people. Or a post office that would deliver promotional material in favor of candidate A but refuse to deliver material for candidate B. In fact, the Spanish post office just did something like that with mail related to the Catalan referendum on independence. An example would be an electricity company that would deliver electricity to all except those that use it to electrocute animals because the CEO of the electricity company is a vegan.
The real danger is not that some services or some content or some foods or some activities are prohibited, the real danger is that the companies providing the infrastructure — the hosting of the content or services — are arbitrarily deciding what they will host and what not. Much like the post office deciding it will not be carrying mail if it does not like what is written in the letter. Content neutrality means that all mail and all email is delivered regardless of the content. Net neutrality means that an email from Gmail travels as fast as email from Yahoo Mail. This example should make it clear how much more important content neutrality is than net neutrality.
While some infrastructure service providers have already stared the practice of not treating all content equally — the notorious examples include de-platforming alt-right content on YouTube and denying Gab app on iTunes and Google Play — I do not believe that the infrastructure providers have much interest in policing the internet for inappropriate content. After all it is not highway authorities that are trying to catch drug traffickers on the highways. It is the police.
Policing content is an added effort and nuisance for the Googles, Facebooks and Godaddys of the world. It opens them for all kinds of pressures and litigation. It is not their business, it is not their expertise, they should not have that authority. Currently they are caving in to pressure from interest groups and politicians that would like to have some content suppressed without the effort of going to court.
Some companies are implementing voluntary codes of conduct. I do not believe this is a solution: serious offences and illegal content should not be left to voluntary measures. Legal content should not be subjected to any kind of measures.
Arbitrary suppression of content means the end of the competition of ideas, the end of democracy, not to mention the end of open and free internet.
Politicians should relieve the infrastructure providers and hosting services from the obligation to police their platforms and for the responsibility for the content someone has put there. And more. Infrastructure providers should be required to carry any legal content regardless of its perceived meaning.
Voluntary codes of conduct should be about conduct and not about content. Shouting from the audience in the middle of a theater performance can be and is prohibited. People that do that are thrown out regardless of what they shout! But the company providing electricity should not decide if play Hamilton deserves its electricity or not. The law enforcement and the courts should police the cyberspace, not the voluntary militias like the Anti Defamation League, nor the algorithms of the infrastructure providers, nor the Wild-West vigilantes.
Some argue that internet companies should be regulated as utilities and some of what has been suggested above would definitively be solved if they are treated as a utility. But that would be two wide. Digital world is different than the world of utilities of the 20th century. The issue are not monopolies, the issue are not pricing levels. The issue is free and open space for innovation and the exchange of ideas. A law on internet content neutrality would ensure it.
Originally published at the DigitalPost.