Oct 1, 2014

Air, Water, and Unlimited Bandwith

Net Neutrality and The Tragedy of the Commons

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 12.46.23 PMBack in July, director of digital for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association John Solit posted a rather honest article on the NCTA’s blog titled, I Confess, I Don’t Completely Understand How The Internet Works Solit argues that the case for or against net neutrality has been skewed by sources who are trying to make sense of a technological infrastructure that no one, not even the NCTA, can really wrap their head around.  “Cable ISPs have long held that consumers and business should have unfettered access to the Internet,” he writes, assuring readers that cable companies are hold themselves accountable for Internet users’ privacy and accessibility.  But as the title of Solit’s article suggests, no one person or agency, public or private, has the power to control something they don’t understand.  We can’t even trace its origins or pin down its inventor (was it Claude Shannon? Tim Berners-Lee? Al Gore?)

The Internet is a complex universal infrastructure has no owner, and yet its users feel it is owned by everyone.   “When systems become complex,” Solit emphasizes, “the only way we can advance them is if [we] rely on shared development.”  Shared development leads to a common domain where residents are extremely protective of those who pollute it, and even more protective of those who may try to take away their right to pollute as they please.  Simply stated, lots of people are extremely protective of the way they use the Internet. 

Had he lived for another decade, the Internet would have been Garrett Hardin’s worst nightmare.

Early on in The Tragedy of the Commons, published in a 1968 issue of journal Science, Hardin rhetorically asks if we are living in a finite world.  Metaphysicians can argue over whether we’re faced with a finite or infinite universe, but at the time Hardin was implying that our shared consumption of natural resources would “greatly increase human misery if we do not, during the immediate future, assume that the world available to the terrestrial human population is finite.”  While Hardin’s framed his philosophy to make a case for population control, he used the tragedy of the commons to make grandiose statements about the human condition (“Freedom of the commons brings ruin to all,” “Freedom to Breed is Intolerable!” etc).  Today, his controversial  argument can also support another “intolerable” case – the need for Internet regulation.

Like many of the publicly accessible natural resources Hardin references – water, air, etc – it’s widely assumed that the accessibility to information on the Internet needs to preserved.  President Obama has publicly supported net neutrality, citing preservation of an Open Internet as “vital not just to the free flow of information, but also to promoting innovation and economic productivity.” 

This exchange of information over this seemingly incomprehensible series of wires has gone unregulated for nearly twenty years, largely because no one can agree on how to set limits on a shared resource.  But as personal security and national safety is continuously being compromised, the need to secure information is as important as the need to preserve it.

Like natural resources were in the late 60’s, the Internet seems to have a limitless capacity.  And like John Solit, we don’t have to provide an argument or understand how the system works in order to take advantage of a lack of regulation. 

Just as we can’t point a finger at each citizen whose car engines pollute our air, we can’t always enforce which IP addresses engage in copyright malpractices.

Remember when Metallica tried to sue everyone who ever downloaded a file on Napster?  Even with over a decade of technological research under our belts, this kind of activity is still extremely difficult to enforce. 

 It’s easy to see smog in the air or oil in our oceans, but what kind of information pollutes the Internet?  When the government shut down file-sharing sites in the early 00’s, it limited access to  independent musicians who gained enormous popularity from the Internet.  They didn’t make money from album sales, but could they have sustained a music career by touring and playing live shows for their virtual fans? 

And sure, most people could agree that porn would be the easiest thing to label as “digital pollution,” but shutting down porn sites would eliminate a huge source of international revenue. And is porn really, truly dangerous to our society?   

While the information we share on the Internet is readily available to the general public, browsing the web is an intensely personal activity.   There is an instant dread that sweeps over a person when he or she notices that someone else is looking at their iPhone on the subway.   We worry about the government tracking information on our phones, yet we don’t quite understand what kind of laws protect the information we share.  This comes ba
ck to morality; I can’t legally be punished for looking at someone’s personal email on the subway any more than I could be punished for taking a screenshot and forwarding it to hundreds of users.

The modern conundrum is that Internet is technically “free,” but privacy is a valuable commodity.  Would users pay premiums for more secure connections?  We’ll never know, because according to the FCC this would not be deemed “commercially reasonable.”

According to Hardin, “The laws of our society follow the pattern of ancient ethics, and therefore are poorly suited to governing a complex, crowded, changeable world.”  Right now, in the digital realm, there is little legislation that protects our privacy.  And as storage and bandwidth approach $0.00 become readily available to more users, ethics are growing increasingly murky.   Whether it’s a politician whose text messages are leaked to the public or a celebrity whose nude photos are swept up by a tabloid, each person will suffer from their own personal tragedy if they continue to use the Internet as a personal playground.