Facebook Tricked Us Into Thinking Net Neutrality Is the Real Issue
It’s become all too easy to pick on Facebook. From its march to Capitol Hill with trusty allies Google and Twitter alongside to its struggle to do anything to adequately address fake news, Facebook had a pretty rough go of it in 2017. Facebook and its “open Internet” allies also lost the net neutrality battle in December when FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and his buds repealed the Obama era decision to treat broadband companies as “common carriers.”
Facebook, Google and many other Internet giants were stirred to action by the threat to (and eventual repeal of) net neutrality, and rightfully so. Rejecting net neutrality threatens the end-to-end design principle that dictates ISPs (e.g. Comcast) treat all content travelling over their pipes the same and serves as the foundation of the Internet. (Putting aside the fact, for now, that many of the largest Internet companies already have peering agreements with ISPs or have their own private CDNs within ISPs designed to facilitate faster speeds.)
But the debate over net neutrality only scratches the surface of the underlying issue that the principle should solve: neutrality of all network and information bottlenecks. ISPs are primarily regulated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which under its Title II, allows the FCC to classify them as “common carriers,” meaning they must provide access to all at the same rates (i.e. net neutrality). Other industries are also regulated as common carriers, including gas and oil pipelines and other public utilities. The common thread is that these common carriers control some bottleneck that society has decided members of the public should have equal access to.
As the country was coming online, it was important to recognize the common carrier status of ISPs: households needed a broadband connection to come online, but because of the high fixed costs it really only makes sense to run one line into each home (like the telephone companies of previous generations). Without a regulatory declaration that these ISPs needed to provide access to any member of the public equally, they would have been free to deny or discriminate. In other words, the ISPs controlled the critical bottleneck of allowing people to come online.
But, as more households have come online and physical access to the Internet becomes commonplace, information bottlenecks have developed elsewhere. I’m talking specifically about social networking and search. Nearly 80% of Internet referral traffic is routed through Facebook and Google, and a majority of Americans report getting at least some news from social media. These companies are all classified as “Title I information services” by the FCC, and even the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has little oversight power. Remember when politicians sounded exasperated, at a loss for how to control the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter when the companies testified on the Hill? This is exactly why. The government has extremely limited oversight power over the key information bottlenecks (Facebook, Google) on which most people discover most information they consume. I’ve drawn a parallel to the net neutrality debate to suggest that, similar to ISPs, Facebook and Google control bottlenecks, and we should demand neutrality from these companies just the way we demand it from ISPs.
A new “bottleneck” framework has been proposed before, by no less than Douglas Sicker, the head of engineering and policy at Carnegie Mellon. My interest is not only in open access to bottlenecks, as Sicker’s was, but in neutrality of all bottlenecks, wherever they exist.
Content on the Internet is abundant — essentially infinite — while the space on our screens and in our minds is finite. Algorithms, in a decidedly non-neutral way, decide what to feed us based on what they think we’re most likely to engage with (sprinkling a few ads on top for funsies). The algorithms serve as a bottleneck, deciding what content from the infinite web is worthy of our limited attention.
What’s worse, the companies controlling these algorithms have made commitments to “fix” the problems of fake news, abuse and hate on their platforms. This is a commitment to become even less neutral. In Mark Zuckerberg’s post on his “personal challenge” for 2018, he committed to just that, writing:
The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do — whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.
My personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues.
Worried yet? Let’s play the tape a bit longer:
This may not seem like a personal challenge on its face, but I think I’ll learn more by focusing intensely on these issues than I would by doing something completely separate. These issues touch on questions of history, civics, political philosophy, media, government, and of course technology. I’m looking forward to bringing groups of experts together to discuss and help work through these topics.
First, let me pause to say I’m all for minimizing abuse and hate on Facebook and other platforms. But I think this issue is completely separable from the goals which I believe to be non-neutral.
This isn’t the first time Zuckerberg has articulated his view that Facebook can play an integral in the creation of a new “social infrastructure” in hopes of building a global community. His commitment to being non-neutral is frankly the scariest resolution Zuck could have made, and the politicians that have urged Facebook and others to “do something” about the fake news problem don’t seem to realize the power they’re demanding these companies exert. More than ISPs could ever dream to do, Facebook and Google control the information fed to us on a daily basis, and having the leader of one of these companies feel empowered to exert influence over what its users spend time doing on said platform is a dangerous, slippery slope. It sounds fine for Zuck to want to “mak[e] sure that time on Facebook is well spent,” but what even does that mean? And what does it mean when Facebook’s General Counsel testified to the Senate that “we want our ad tools to be used for political discourse, certainly. But we do not want our ad tools to be used to inflame and divide.” Have you heard of our President? By its nature, politics inflames and divides, and it’s dangerous that one company is in a position to stamp out what it may consider inflammatory and divisive content.
Throughout 2017, I read with confusion as analysts and writers demanded net neutrality on the one hand, but also increased intervention by companies like Facebook to moderate content in a decidedly non-neutral manner. We’re beginning to see the consequences of a non-neutral network in other areas as well: remember how Google removed YouTube from Amazon devices? Blocking access to a platform is a level up from the kind of “fixing” Zuckerberg seems to contemplate, but if he wanted to begin blocking certain content from Facebook’s blue-walled garden, who’s to stop him? As these few Internet giants continue to encroach on each others’ territory, it’s critical, as both consumers, but most importantly, as citizens, that they play nice and openly with each other. If we truly want a neutral Internet, we should demand neutrality from the most powerful information bottlenecks, not just those mean ISPs.
This Week Amazon Should. . .
At least according to one technology analyst. Every week it’s something: from entering the pharmaceutical drug market to buying an upmarket coffee startup, “analysts” play a game amongst themselves, seeing who can suggest the most headline-grabbing click-baitey purchase for Bezos and company. I thought it’d be fun to track these outlandish claims each week at the end of my post. It’s become like the talking heads on ESPN: Dick Vitale picks Duke, Kentucky, UNC and Louisville for the Final Four every year, and twice a day, the broken clock is right! A quick Google of “Amazon should buy” will prompt results for not only Target but Kohl’s, FedEx, Twitter, and a host of other eligible bachelors and bachelorettes.