Does an “open internet” promote a representative democracy? No, because democracy is not its job

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….

Advertisements

The likelihood of net neutrality being codified in statute looks dim…

Republicans in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate have been pushing for legislation that codifies net neutrality principles, making them a part of federal law.  Even with control of both chambers of the U.S. Congress, Republicans have not been able to convince enough Democratic members of Congress to get on board with passing a law that would avoid the back and forth pendulum between promulgating and repealing net neutrality rules on the agency level at the Federal Communications Commission.

Last spring, 52 U.S. Senators, including three Republicans, voted to reinstate net neutrality rules that were repealed in December 2017 by FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order.  Mr. Pai’s treatment of net neutrality keeps the emphasis on one of the open internet’s four principles, transparency but leaves the other three principles; throttling, paid prioritization, and blocking, up to the “network effect”, where broadband access providers argue that discouraging use of the internet by blocking, throttling, or discriminating between carriers would lead to a devaluation of their networks, thus an illogical approach to take.

GOP control of the House is under threat this November.  If election sentiment carries over into the midterms, it is likely that the Democratic Party will capture the House.  Rasmussen Reports found that 47% of likely voters in the United States’ midterm elections are likely to vote for the Democratic Party while 42% of likely voters may cast their ballots for the Republican Party.

In the U.S. Senate, Republicans hold 51 seats while the Democrats hold 47 seats. Two independents, Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, caucus with the Democrats.  The Democrats need at least four seats to regain control of the Senate.

In the U.S. House, Republicans hold 236 seats to the Democrats 193.  Democrats need to pick up at least 25 seats to garner a House majority.

Will Democrats run on net neutrality as an issue? Based in polling from Pew Research, net neutrality is likely not an issue to grab the eardrums of voters.  For all voters, economic issues overall took first place, according Pew’s poll.  When broken down, the top six issues were:

  1. Immigration
  2. Health care
  3. Education
  4. Politicians/Government systems
  5. Guns/gun control/gun laws
  6. Economy/economic issues

For Democrats, while the top three overall issues for all voters were also a part of the Democrats of top three issues, gun control, politicians and government systems, and jobs rounded out the bottom three of their top six concerns.

House Democrats are aligning with their base’s apparent lack of priority for net neutrality.  Looking at a sample of 102 House Democrat websites, only four (3.9%) of those sites mentioned net neutrality, the open internet, or internet freedom as a key issue.

The low priority given to net neutrality this campaign season by voters and House Democrats tells me that Democrats will be in no hurry to join Republicans in drafting a bipartisan net neutrality bill.