Techopedia defines the open internet as “a fundamental network (net) neutrality concept in which information across the World Wide Web (WWW) is equally free and available without variables that depend on the financial motives of Internet Service Providers (ISP).”
The political debate over net neutrality over the last three years has focused on the ability of ISPs such as Comcast and AT&T to discriminate against third-party content provider traffic in favor of ISP content, to the extent that ISPs are expected to use their gateway status to slow down traffic from certain websites or outright block subscriber access to certain websites.
The internet as a platform plays an important role in American commerce as American consumers are expected to spend an estimated $7.8 billion on Cyber Monday. Net neutrality violations could mean lost advertisement revenues for content providers who are unable to get their products and advertisements in front of consumer eyeballs. Being cut out of $7.8 billion of revenues during the holiday season could pose an existential threat for small businesses depending on those holiday sales to break even or stay in the black.
Besides the issue of staying in the black is the issue of whether an open internet promotes the components of American political culture; whether an open internet or lack thereof poses an existential threat to the American republic. I think as currently construed, an open internet does not pose an existential threat to the American republic. On the contrary, when it comes to navigating the political-economic environment of the United States, knowledge on how well American representative democracy is working is best ascertained by reviewing hard political-economic data published by public agencies or academic or other research institutions.
The open internet has inundated the political economy with junk. It has Americans sacrificing value of specialized information for volumes of narcissistic junk.
First, why has the internet not eroded the American republic? Contrary to the hoopla surrounding assertions that the Russian government sponsored psychological warfare on the American electorate during the November 2016 elections, the populace participated in the selection of the electors that voted for the president of the United States. More votes were cast for president in 2016 (135,719,984) than were cast in 2012 (128,768,094).
In addition, what I refer to as “insurgent” parties, i.e., the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, etc., did better in 2016 than they did in 2012. The Gary Johnson-led Libertarian Party ticket picked up approximately 4.5 million votes in 2016 compared to 1.3 million votes in 2012. The Jill Stein-led Green Party almost tripled its 2012 showing during the 2016 campaign, with approximately 1.5 million votes cast for the Green Party in 2016 versus approximately 470,000 votes in 2012.
Rather than eroding representative democracy, an argument could be made that the internet provided less expensive outlets for insurgent parties to get their messages out to the voting public. I saw more of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein on YouTube than I did mainstream press.
America’s founding aristocracy chose a republic as the best vehicle for promoting the three major components of American political culture: liberty, equality, and democracy. Does the open internet help promote these characteristics of American political culture? I would argue only if the government expressly decides to use the open internet itself in order to accomplish these goals or requires by charter that every private entity operating on the internet do so.
Liberty is freedom from government control where Americans expect a great degree of economic and personal freedom without the government unreasonably regulating personal and commercial behavior. The open internet itself does not have this responsibility. In the end it is just a communications platform. Problems would arise if government were to use the internet for surveillance purposes, i.e., use deep packet reading to ascertain what messages you are sending over the internet or, under the guise of “smart city” technology, surveil minority neighborhoods to regulate citizen movement.
Nor does the internet have the responsibility of creating political equality. Political equality refers to the right to participate in politics equally based on the principle of “one person, one vote.” Notwithstanding the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 general elections, the “one person, one vote” characteristic of American political culture is, again, the responsibility of national and state governments. Online voting as a concept is in its infant stage. And while the Russians allegedly interfered by waging a messaging campaign via social media, there were other outlets, both online and offline, where Americans could get their information and strengthen their “one vote” with knowledge.
Lastly, there is democracy itself, the right to cast that one vote for the candidate of your choice. How does the unimpeded flow of information across 100,000 interconnected global computer networks impact your ability to choose a leader? The above discussion summarizes the answer: it doesn’t. Yes, one could go to the internet and look up information on a candidate, but there are millions of Americans with no access to broadband that function normally in society; that buy groceries, go to work, and yes, vote, without having to access the information floating around the internet that is deposited by various sources. Besides traditional media, they probably access information from the original sources i.e. city council meetings; public access television, government agency public information offices, and make just as accurate a political decision as the woman surfing the internet in her bunny sandals and pajamas.
Yes, the internet has afforded millions of people to express themselves in cyberspace via blogs, websites, podcasts, and online videos, but the open internet neither promotes or hinders democracy. Only humans can and there are other sources of information through which humans can accumulate knowledge on liberty, equality, and democracy. Democracy is the responsibility of government and its citizens. The open internet is neither savior, devil, or panacea….