Anarchist Perspectives on Net Neutrality: The Digital Enclosure of the Commons

  • Posted on: 17 December 2017
  • By: thecollective

via crimethinc.

Yesterday, the FCC voted to repeal Net Neutrality. Without those protections, private corporations—and the class that controls them—can shape what information is available to people according to their own interests. Imagine a future in which the content widely available on the internet is comparable to what you could watch on network television in the 1980s! Today, the flows of information on the internet are almost identical with our collective thought processes: they determine what we can discuss, what we can imagine. But the fundamental problem is that the internet has always been controlled by the government and corporations.

It says a lot about the private sector that military development produced a comparatively horizontal framework that corporate control has rendered progressively less participatory and egalitarian. Unfortunately, there’s no anarchist alternative, no people’s internet to build up instead; this is the only one. State socialists have taken advantage of this opportunity to promote nationalizing the internet, arguing that this is an opportunity to formulate a vision of a better future. But if we don’t want the capitalist class to control our communication, state control of the internet doesn’t solve the problem: it is, after all, the state that is making the move to put corporations in control here, and the existing models for state control (think: China) are just as oppressive. We should take pragmatic steps to defend our rights in the current context, but a rights-based framework that takes the state for granted as the arbiter of social issues will never secure our freedom. If we want a truly liberating vision of a better future, we have to think bigger.

An anarchist approach must begin by rejecting the false dichotomy between corporate and state power. From there, we must dare to dream about decentralized forms of infrastructure that are resilient against top-down control. The internet, in its current form, is indeed indispensable for participating in society; but that doesn’t mean we should take the current form of the internet—or of society—for granted as the best or only possible model. It was our resources, extracted from us in the form of taxes and labor and innovation, that helped create both in the first place. What could we create if our efforts were not shaped by the constraints of the state and the imperatives of the market?

Our long-term goal should be to seize back the structures that we helped build, but we will have to transform them to make them function in our interests—so we may as well begin experimenting with parallel structures right now. Even reformists must recognize that doing so is practically the only way to gain leverage on those who currently control the means by which we communicate.

Technology is never neutral. It’s always political: it always expresses and reinforces the power dynamics and aspirations that gave rise to it. If engineers and programmers don’t build from a political framework with the explicit intention of creating egalitarian relations, their work will always be used to concentrate power and oppress people.

For more on the limitations that capitalism coded into the digital from the outset, read Deserting the Digital Utopia. For details on the end of Net Neutrality and the radical alternatives to corporate control, read the following text by William Budington, also interviewed on The Final Straw.

If you want an image of the future, imagine an internet service provider stamping on a human brain—forever.

Net Neutrality and the Feeding Frenzy

The last bulwark has fallen that stood between broadband providers and a profit-driven feeding frenzy the likes of which we’ve never seen before. On Thursday morning, the FCC, led by Republican Trump appointee Ajit Pai, voted in a 3-2 split to repeal 2015 regulations enforcing strong consumer protections on the provision of Internet services, popularly known as Net Neutrality. The repeal will allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to bundle Internet plans in much the same way as they do cable plans, allowing access to certain websites only when you pay up. In addition, it also allows ISPs to create tiered levels of Internet access, forcing websites and content providers that have enjoyed the benefit of an equal playing field over the past years to pay more money in order to compete with properties owned by the cable companies themselves.

Want to buy bandwidth from your favorite Telecommunications company, like AT&T, Verizon, or Comcast? How about Telco Lite, with access to Wikipedia? That’ll be $59.99/mo. Oh, you want Telco Super, with YouTube bundled in? $79.99. You dare to ask for Netflix, a competitor to Comcast’s own Hulu service? Sure, Telco Ultra can give you that—for the price of $99.99.

Let us be clear: this repeal only benefits the ISPs. It allows ISPs to use their privileged position as the proprietor of the physical infrastructure for home Internet access to squeeze out profit from both sides of the pipe they control—to gouge both content creators and regular users alike. Everyone else, like 74% of Americans who favor Net Neutrality, or the overwhelming majority of people who submitted unique comments to the FCC opposing the repeal in the public feedback phase, be damned.

In 2015, under the then-comissioner of the FCC Tom Wheeler, provision of Internet access was reclassified under Title II of the Communications Act. This meant that ISPs were regulated similarly to a utility, and that preferential treatment could not be provided to some websites over others. This is often referred to as an even on-ramp: when you open your browser, you’d see the same Internet everyone else sees. You’d have the same access to information as every other Internet user. Your ISP could still charge you for faster access in general, just not for faster access to particular parts of the net. Even with these regulations in place, ISPs have been found violating them over and over again. As recently as July, Verizon was caught throttling (read: slowing down) Netflix videos, in violation of FCC rules. But don’t worry, Chairman Pai says—we don’t need Net Neutrality because the ISPs will self-regulate. Yeah, right.

Dirty tricks abounded in the lead-up to Thursday’s vote. In the aforementioned public feedback phase, millions of fake anti-Net Neutrality comments were submitted to the FCC website. These used variations of phrases—slightly modified to have the same meaning but using different words—in order to give the appearance of a unique comment being submitted. Especially disturbing was the fact that the comments were given under assumed names, often those of the deceased, or of those who are alive but never themselves submitted anything. So concerning was the practice that it prompted the NY Attorney General to open an investigation into the identity theft of New Yorkers whose names were used in fake comments, leading him to eventually publish an open letter to the FCC after failing to receive any response to repeated inquiries.

What’s important for anarchists to take note of here is that a lot of the debate around Net Neutrality makes it seem like it pits one set of profit-hungry companies against another. Why should we care if ISPs or streaming services win? Let them fight each other, it doesn’t affect us. But the reality is much more dire. Since the major broadband providers effectively run what amounts to oligopoly control over our access to information, they have much more direct ability to filter, throttle, and ban outright content which they deem unacceptable or unprofitable. So, yeah, it’s about Netflix and Youtube. But it’s also about access to radical or anarchist content from CrimethInc. or IGD. In addition to shaping traffic, the repeal enables your provider to actually block content altogether. This puts our ability to create our own radical subjectivities under an even greater threat than before.

Radical Alternatives

Regulatory control by the centralized federal agencies backed by state force is certainly no ideal to strive for, but (as is so often the case) the state has set itself up to play the role of savior. In that role it was holding back the forces of unmitigated private extraction of the information landscape. But could things have been different? As anarchists, could we have helped to shape the landscape itself in a more decentralized, autonomous manner? Can we still? Instead of corporations held back by state force, what would a non-corporate alternative to Internet provision look like?

There are some radical alternatives that challenge corporate hegemonic control over Internet provision at a very basic level. Exciting examples of community-based approaches are taking shape in hacker spaces from Oakland to New York in the form of mesh networks. The idea is simple: instead of relying on the existing physical infrastructure built out by the large telecommunications companies, we can build our own infrastructure. We can take our home wifi routers, and program them to talk to each other, to provide access to one another. This horizontal communication stands in stark contrast to the usual usage of these devices, which is mainly to facilitate access vertically, directly to the ISP uplink. In this way, we can build an net that is created and controlled by us. Pirate packets, jumping through the air.

The benefit for us is clear, and this is a fundamental, structural challenge to the current state and corporate control flows. So our challenge is twofold, both short-term and long-term. First, we must stop the immediate, existential threat that we face with the repeal of the most basic Net Neutrality protections, which threaten to silence our voices. Second, we must build a structural alternative to the current Internet, an other network, one where our voices can not be silenced by a mere regulatory shift because no one else controls it but the communities that comprise it themselves. A small example of this is the mesh networks that exist today, which are fledgling but precious examples of the prefiguration of power we wish to see.

A six-gill, blunt nose shark (Hexanchus griseus) takes a bite out of an undersea internet cable.

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Comments

Maybe the screen addicts will realise it's about face-to-face existence? Of course, profiteering from internet speeds was going to come; it's no surprise. This is positive in my mind. People may just start to take greater interest in the real world? There is a life to live without a screen; reading this article, anyone would think that the water supply was about to be cut off. And I'm sure any hike in costs to companies will be passed on to their customers. So, even those who don't use the net personally will end up paying extra!

"ending net neutrality is a good thing" is definitely in the running for most obnoxious opinion held by anarchists in 2017. the amount of optimism here is beyond pathetic - was the world any better before the internet? ahh yes, but maybe a slight rise in costs and inconvenience will finally revert people to a time before they started becoming addicted to mediated existence through mass media! may we all take pleasure in rediscovering the joy of talking to your fuck-off neighbors and chasing a hoop down the road!

Says the person on the internet posting comments.

just net neutrality. Yes, the world was a better place without the net in my experience. So maybe this posting is now 'the most obnoxious of 2017?'

Back in my day we had to walk 3 miles through the snow to send our communications with the telegraph! And we liked it!

Your world is dead, primmie scum! I invented the internet back in MN in the early 00s to altruistically rid the world of primmie nihilist scum like you. Everybody knows this!

'just net neutrality. Yes, the world was a better place without the net in my experience.''

maybe for people like you lot as in, the standard anarchist archetype. middle class, access to good education and opertunities for university, etc. etc. but for people like me who A. arn't acedemic (in the sitting in a room listening to some asshole speak sense) and B. never had even the hope of the opportunities you people take for granted the internet is a great resource that has allowed me to educate myself and become a better person than the norm of what comes out of White Working Class Culture in this country. If it wasn't for the internet i'd probably be another moron intent on watching the X-Factor, working all day breaking my back carrying bricks, mixing cement, etc. etc....

Don't get me wrong, i have a critique of the Internet and technology but they have done a lot of good for me and the people who say this shit are generally people that seem to have pretty good opportunities, etc.

There's a much bigger picture. There are people who don't watch X Factor AND don't have the net! "Wow, they do?" I hear you say. Yes, there are plenty of people. So maybe, your worldview is not so worldly after all that porn you've been slavering over?

You critisize the internet yet you totally ignored my point and started talking about porn. you're so deep in the mentality that stupid people get from that net that you don't even realize it. hilarious.

ok but guess what? before the internet there were working class radicals and anarchists. I became an anarchist through the music of Dead Kennedys and Conflict, who have been around since the 70s or 80s. People find radical ideas when they are looking, whether on the internet or not.

let's get rid of this fucking DARPA program already, it's destroying society.

have educated yourself? That's the ME ME ME reference, you dope! The bigger picture is the alienation, the depression and anxiety, the loneliness, the lack of community, surveillance etc. The net is anything but neutral; not only in terms of speed. So yes, I did reply to you but I have to expand my reply because you're too dense to have got it first time. Now, let me get back to my privileged life ha ha ha you thick peasant net worshipper.

I rest my case... and I doubt you would be so mouthy face-to-face? Anyway, get to bed, you got school tomorrow.

Challenge accepted! Come to my dojo, primmie. School is in session!

williamgillistroll should be taken seriously as a heart attack! Everyone knows that, etc

But does actual william gillis disagree with what willgilltroll says? Lol

Considering that they're actual William Gillis quotes, I don't think actual William Gills would disagree. with them.

The analysis telling us that this repeal is good for how it'll sever the umbilical cord with "the State" is bad analysis, and appears to be throwing way too much trust in whatever anarcho-geeks will be coming up as solutions.

Also the State is not one united gang of oligarchs, but many factions fighting for power within an archaic political system. Some factions, representing most of the Silicon Valley-centered IT industry, have been supporting Net Neutrality. They got a bunch of good reasons for it... like I don't think these people are okay with Disney and Sony controlling the entire internet.

The current repeal is the revenge, 15 years in the making, of the big corporate media ogres, that over the recent years have taken over the major ISPs in the country, and that was their preparation for using such a precedent to turn the internet into what happened with cable TV and radio in the ''80s. Namely the cablification of the net.

If such a situation happens (assuming the 1 year of Trump admin won't get nullified by an impending impeachment of sorts - the biggest political hope that liberals have at this point) then Mesh networks will become nothing else than what pirate radios used to be. Pirate radios was eventually shut down, but that's in parts due to the rise of a much superior form of telecoms, the internet.

So the Mesh nets could also become the superawesome alternative to an enclosed, broken internet, ASSUMING THAT SERIOUS EFFORT ARE BEING DONE TO PROVIDE WITH USER-FRIENDLY, OUT-OF-THE-BOX SOLUTIONS.

And this is where lies the huge flaw of the hacking/GNU communities for a long time: they don't fucking care about, or understand user-friendliness. They assume that the whole world is made of computer geeks who enjoy coding for hours on a screen, and tampering with electronics. This geek crowd actually HATES the very concept of a "user", whereas you're always supposed to code, compile, configure what you're using. Dorky people are like that.... sadly, we like to interact with circuits and computer subroutines. But there's also people who got a life, lol, who're skilled and rather interested in interacting with people, and they'll avoid the lame, un-sexy, technicalities at all costs.

This disdain of the "easy" and accessible is a fucking stupid trend among the geeks and they've been far too slow to understand that most people won't/can't spend hours a day scripting on their computers. Especially not for how painstaking it is on Android devices. You gotta be reasonable and accept to work on a compromise, or it's everyone around you who'll compromise to paying for their Facebook dopamine, pay-per-post mode, because the open internet is gone.

Take the Tor Browser Bundle for instance. Works out of the box, though not with the safest levels of privacy, though it can be configured easily for better privacy if you want. But Tor now has been apparently compromised, ISPs have found a way to block it entirely at router level (so it seems) and this tactic has been put in use already in public libraries. Which means that kiss your Tor goodbye under a non-Net Neutral US, unless you connect outside of corporate ISPs.

For other examples, chatting/messaging has boomed in about the same way in the late '90s... with easy to use programs that didn't require pedestrian configs to "just. work.". Ubuntu was slow to spread exactly because of this flaw... not only the devs are some of the worst, hypocritical pricks on the net, but most of the versions were either buggy or kept requiring a bunch of configurations for it to do what Windoze or OS X does.

But frankly, the fact that corporate ISPs were in charge of our internet use was always a faint pain in the ass.... that now will turn quickly into a major butthurt. Of course, ISP will start with boibling frogs strategy... offering "channels" for cheap.

So yeah, it should be an urgent priority in the current context for as many people as possible to be moving to things like Zeronet and Mesh networks and for hacker spaces to become ISPs by themselves, but realize how that will not be too easy, and you'll be competing directly with Fedbook and Netflics.

I'm sick of present day Crimethinc and IGD giving me orders. "We must.." "We must.." "We must.."

I read IGD pretty heavily for a while but got sick of their broken record litany of heavy handed marching orders. The same thing at the end of every article, might as well have been copy-pasted. I stopped reading.

On to the next rad fad I guess? It's anarchist media dumbass, nobody is telling you what to do. They're just writing to convey urgency.

Nope, I have never followed rad fads or whatever you are talking about. Never started calling myself a communist like the cool kids.

And why do you think they are trying to convey this urgency? They'd rather you get on board with the next moral panic than develop your own self theory and act autonomously. At least it appears that way from a lot of their writing. Why do you think IGD doesn't have comments.

There is plenty of anarchist media that doesn't do this heavy handed urgency speak.

Struggle struggle struggle Antifa antifa antifa

I'm sure you don't get what I'm talking about. Basically, you're projecting an elaborate conspiracy on to people who don't even know you and don't really care what you do. Anarchist media is supposed to encourage action because that's what most versions of anarchism are supposed to be about. You want to consume anarchist media without being reminded that this is, in fact, all that you're doing?

Basically, your post-left bullshit is attacking the other part of you that wants to be actually doing something *points and laughs*

...this refers to people who've abandoned or went beyond progressive State/social reform, or socialism. I don't see what's your issue with this, if you're really anarchist. Rejecting the State basically is being post-Left.

You make a lot of assumptions. Assumptions about who I know. But that's okay, I won't sling empty "elaborate conspiracy" accusations at you.

"people who don't even know you and don't really care what you do. Anarchist media is supposed to encourage action"

Don't care what I do. Supposed to encourage action. Which one is it?

I don't see why you are so hostile, did I touch a nerve? I don't see a problem with writing to inspire action. I see a problem with the spoon feeding of ideology in a repetitive fashion.

Maybe I am not the target audience as I have been around these ideas for quite a while, but I am not so sure it's a great way to inspire a new generation of anarchists.

You are sloppy, lot's of post-left people are doing stuff, even your precious riot. Keep using vague generalizations to smear instead of actually engaging though. Nuance seems hard for you. Basically.

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