The democratization of the internet was supposed to open up avenues of expression for the American electorate. According to progressives, the commercial faction doing the most damage to freedom of expression on the internet was the broadband internet access provider. These firms, which include AT&T, Comcast, Cox, and Verizon, posed a threat to democratic expression because they could potentially block access to a consumer’s preferred website, manipulate the speeds at which a content provider could transmit data to a consumer, or put their content ahead of content provided by another website.
Proponents of the concept of net neutrality, where broadband access providers would be prohibited from favoring their content over those preferred by their subscribers, throttling the speeds by which content providers transmitted data, or blocking access to websites, had only in their gunsights the broadband access provider. The masses of net neutrality followers were never fully informed by their leading strategists that if commercial activity was looked at in its entirety then edge providers such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google, would have to be placed under their scopes as well.
The net neutrality faction seemed to be advancing politically and legally. After taking what appeared to be marching orders from President Barack Obama in late 2014 on implementing net neutrality rules, former Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler delivered by issuing in 2015 a set of net neutrality rules based on the Communications Act of 1934. The following year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia would seemingly affirm net neutrality after denying a court challenge of the rules by Verizon.
Unfortunately, all honeymoons end and proponents of democracy on the internet would find out over the next two years what the real challenge to democracy over the internet is: contentiousness.
For those of us who advocate in cyberspace, we know that social media can be unforgiving. Trolls hiding behind goofy looking avatars hurling one-liners and expletives make the notion of free expression a joke. Bad manners and narcissism go viral with a hashtag, the digital banner around which many, unfortunately uninformed, tend to rally. Politics is fun to watch at times, but in the end, it is low-frequency chimp shit where most of its participants vibrate at highly emotional levels.
Emotions around net neutrality were expertly manipulated by strategists to distract consumer and policymaker alike from the other side of the freedom of expression debate: a business model driven by algorithms and advertising fees.
The cynic will argue that for the edge provider, “open internet”, a term used interchangeably with net neutrality, means a business model opened to advertisement by foreign agents and the ease of infiltrating a democratic system. Dig a little deeper and the cynicism goes away because democracy is an open system that, in theory at least, allows for wide participation. Combine democracy with an open market driven by digitization and you actually lessen the argument that democracy as a political system can be attacked. Rather, democracy is increasingly susceptible to crude, direct manipulation as the alleged Russian interference with the 2016 elections demonstrates.
Russia was able to play on the contentiousness of the American political system, a system where debate is highly polarized; where communities can be quickly established around a Twitter hashtag and discussions, debates, and pronouncements made to go viral with a retweet and nary any deeper research to verify the tweet.
Maybe something for proponents of openness on the internet to consider, that while keeping their eyes and rants on the broadband access provider as gatekeeper, the focus should also be on the retweet as the Trojan Horse. To an online democracy, is one worse than the other?