Law in the Internet Society

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TWikiGuestSecondEssay 5 - 22 Dec 2017 - Main.RohanGeorge1
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Introduction

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When we talk about technological innovation and the value a new piece of technology adds to society, the most common concept brought to the table is efficiency. Students learning their first programming language are immediately taught that the run-time of algorithms and the space utilized are the two defining factors of optimal code for any given situation. We want to expend minimal time and minimal effort for the sake of maximum results. In today’s neoliberal society, the business landscape is not defined by multiple values. Rather, it holds only one value paramount – efficiency. With technology’s rapid advancements, we are achieving gains in efficiency too quickly. The pleasure centers in our brains are addicted to progress, and our appetites have been rewarded again and again with tangible gains in efficiency through the advancement of technology. Our obsession with efficiency and convenience has pushed us to focus blindly on advancing efficiency at the expense of all other values.
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It is easy to be misled by the FCC’s recent announcement that is will be restoring internet freedom. Apparently, this new policy direction will lead to rapid Internet growth, openness, and freedom. In class, one thing I learned was how the proposed destruction of network neutrality should really be better understood as allowing discriminatory routing because it more accurately describes the problem with a non-neutral internet.
 
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Eschewing Human Connection

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Our class discussion on carriage regulation of the FCC’s announcement also prompted me to reconsider the reasons why I believe in non-discriminatory routing. This essay will consider three of the most common arguments made in favor of the FCC’s position, and attempt a rebuttal and defense of non-discriminatory routing.
 
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Once upon a time, kids ran around yards and biked around the block with their friends after school. Time spent playing with kids was gradually replaced with hours talking on the phone with friends, which still facilitated some level of human connection. By 1999, phone calls were replaced with email, games, and surfing the internet in other ways. Email emphasizes the convenience of getting to respond to things on your own time. The kid is not forced into interaction in the same way that phone calls and in-person interactions demand. Instant gratification in the form of web games, too, is too convenient – we can click a few buttons and the thing we want is right there. Other activities such as physical exercise, enjoying real snow, playing with friends seem to require too much effort by comparison. The crazy convenience of technology taps into our laziest urges and makes other options seem far less appealing, even if these other options would eventually bring far more long-term gratification.
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Incentivizing Network Investment

The main slated benefit arising out of the FCC’s decision is “restoring a favorable climate for network investment”. This argument is premised on the idea that the prior structure with its ‘utility–like’ rules did not sufficiently encourage investment into upgrading the network infrastructure. Now, buoyed by the potential to monetize the pipes and switches in ways broadband providers could never do before, as the argument goes, they have every incentive to invest in the network: to improve bandwidth, reach and speed.

Better Access

A further ancillary benefit to this anticipated investment is “closing the digital divide”. This argument is based on the logic that further investment into network architecture will improve access to the internet, particularly in rural areas. In such areas, broadband providers cannot improve its service offering because of limited growth in demand for internet connectivity, as compared to urban areas where more investment has landed. The access argument had particular persuasiveness in India, during the time Free Basic Internet was proposed, because of the talk of some 800 million people potentially getting connected to some form of the internet.

More innovation online

A third anticipated positive outcome from the FCC’s decision is “spurring competition and innovation that benefits consumers”. The logic underpinning this argument is that having more freedom with respect to pricing and service provision terms will lead broadband providers to develop innovative solutions: for example, a more efficient way to move 4K video data packets, if they can charge more for such provision. Hence, the end result might leave consumers with greater optionality. Like many, I too can see the potential for broad-based positive change when the FCC frames its decision in such rosy terms. In reality, however, there are many problems related to discriminatory routing practices that will now be considered.

Rebutting the attracting investment argument

Addressing the inducement of investment, I think fact that the FCC needed to essentially lay down a red carpet to the ISPs to make network investment speaks volumes about the existing market structure and condition of regulatory capture. Firstly, it is surprising that given the essential nature of internet services in today’s world, investment to improve its provision or quality is so hard to come by. When firms lack incentives to invest, often it is a sign of lack of competition in the market. The broadband provision market is in exactly that predicament – with last mile provision being essentially a collection of local monopolies. Secondly, the fact that the FCC commissioners are essentially promoting the ISPs interests with this decision suggests regulatory capture, where the regulators are functionally in bed with the companies they are obligated to regulate. The real problem, a lack of sufficient network investment, therefore shouldn’t be solved by essentially paying the ISPs to invest; perhaps the cost of investment in network architecture should be subsidized by the government, or entirely funded by them, similar to funding for road or transport infrastructure investment.

Rebutting the access argument

Regarding access, again while the slated network investments could theoretically improve access in poorly connected areas, in reality, improving access is far from the real aim of discriminatory routing. If anything, the access gains are incidental to the real motive: monetizing the browsing patterns of internet users. It is interesting that major platform companies are also against the FCC’s decision because it seems a potential challenger to the current dominance by Google and Facebook of the online advertising industry.

Rebutting the innovation argument

The underlying motive of monetizing browsing patterns also explains why ditching network neutrality will crush innovation. We usually perceive innovators or disruptors to an industry to be new market entrants, who have figured out radically new ways to perform a task or provide a service. Under these new rules, companies in this mold will face an almighty task of breaking into the platform company market or any ‘e-commerce’ sector which has an incumbent already. They will be forced to pay for play under paid prioritization schemes; preferential arrangements between huge market incumbents and ISPs will effectively price out competitors who cannot afford these premiums. As the CEO of Reddit said, “If we don’t have net neutrality protections that enforce tenets of fairness online, you give internet service providers the ability to choose winners and losers” in every sector of the market online.

A 'principled' approach to 'network neuttrality'

Having rebutted the clearly misrepresented benefits of discriminatory routing, it is important to provide an alternative. The fact remains that, as the reason for abandoning the term of net neutrality demonstrates, there is already non-neutral service provision, because ISPs already do traffic management. In order to ensure Quality of Service, ISPs frequently alter the route of packets. The phttp://...https://www.eff.org/issues/net-neutrality][“discrimination in favor of particular apps, sites or services”]].
 
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Information Overload

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In other words, what we really need is certain principles to guide ISPs routing practices. For example, I think ISPs should be prohibited from conducting behavioral advertising based on users browsing patterns. This is because unlike Google or Facebook, it is incredibly hard to work around the ISP and avoid that data collection. Whatever you do online, your gateway to internet access is still based on access to a nhttp://...s.lse.ac.uk/67362/7/Murray_Principled%20approach_2016.pdf][Murray and Audiebert]] describe a ‘principled approach’ to network neutrality, whereby ideas like respecting privacy and freedom of expression are the guiding principles of traffic management, not maximizing profit through fast lanes.
 
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In 2002, Angela Lewis in a First Monday article observed “I also find that there is a tendency for some people - and children in particular - to view any information coming from the computer as having an intrinsic worth above other sources (e.g. books) specifically because it is online, and therefore somehow more current or valuable.” The information that comes to us from the mediums of greatest efficiency (internet sources) is now prioritized as carrying the most accuracy and importance. Never mind the reputation of the sources or the thoroughness of the fact-checking – we want our information now, and we hold the fastest, most current sources to be the best.
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Another important principle that should guide ISPs routing practices is transparency. In this regard, the FCC seems absolutely right to focus on that principle. But transparency should supplement not replace rules banning discriminatory routing. We should know how traffic management is being done so that for example there are no chilling effects to freedom of expression based on people’s right to consume certain content being affected by paid prioritization.
 
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The problem with this is not the individual pieces of information themselves. The internet is home to a vast amount of truth, and it is incredible that these truths are now available to us at our fingertips. The difficulty at hand is now our lack of ability and motivation to separate truth from falsehood. Lewis speaks of cyber-overload – the phenomenon of having an over-supply of information. The human attention span cannot handle sifting through the expanse of information in front of us. It is more appealing and immediately gratifying to consume new information rather than to go through the pains of fact-checking the old. The internet offers an unprecedented opportunity for people to publish whatever bits of information they desire, and they may choose from any number of sites from which to publish that do not bother to check the accuracy of such information.

The convenience of the internet has also lead people to forget that the world contains a vast amount of information still inaccessible through the web. They have deemed this information too inconvenient to access, and therefore they will not bother learning from these sources. With these mediums of immense convenience and efficiency, it is no wonder that our baseline expectations of efficiency have drastically increased. When it comes to retrieving and analyzing information, we have no patience for taking extra steps to ensure we are learning truths.

Fake News and Facebook

Lewis’s article was written in 2002, more than a decade before the 2016 election. She had not been exposed to the news divide that happens on facebook today, nor did she see the massive influx of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton-related “fake news” articles. Even so, as early as 2002, she cautioned “We cannot assume that just because we found some information on the Internet, that it somehow makes it automatically real, right or a sound source of knowledge. Web sites are designed to sell a message to us as potential consumers of a point of view, a product or a concept - it is more a marketing than an information age in that respect.” Facebook’s newsfeed algorithms have honed in on what news we agree with and show us only that. Macedonian teenagers have discovered that if they write articles with incendiary headlines and completely false events, they can earn a ridiculous amount of money through foot traffic on their webpages because their articles are shared on facebook. The “fake news” phenomenon highlights the fact that many people encountering quite shocking news don’t even bother to do a cursory google search anymore – they will simply take the information as true.

Conclusion

Our society’s increasing obsession with efficiency, spurred on by the conveniences of the internet, has led us to ignore other aspects of our lives that carry importance. We think this increasing efficiency has lead us to have more control over our time. After all, if more tasks can be done in less time, doesn’t that mean we have more time for leisure and more freedom to do what we want? Ironically, that is the opposite of what has happened. We have become addicts of and slaves to the maximization of efficiency. Our lives revolve around answering text messages as soon as possible and running programs as soon as they have loaded.

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In a way, this process of reflection for me re-iterates the class discussions about how network neutrality debates are about allocating power, and it is clear the deck has been stacked against internet users. My conclusion of this short reflection reaches the same sense I left that class with, that somehow the FCC made a huge mistake in prioritizing who it protects, a mistake other regulators like TRAI in India, did not make. And while they may clothe the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the dangers of the FCC’s action are no longer lost on me.

Revision 5r5 - 22 Dec 2017 - 23:10:14 - RohanGeorge1
Revision 4r4 - 11 Dec 2016 - 17:14:29 - LauraZhang
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