Democracy and Net Neutrality…

Written for SilenceBreakers

Ron Paul, a libertarian Republican leader candidate, is also one of the many people with this political philosophy that is essentially a critique of net neutrality (also see Ayn Rand Institute’s comments on this). Why? Basically, libertarians see net neutrality as an undermining of the market by the state. However, net neutrality isn’t about the government controlling content, it is about implementing needed regulation and safeguards to stop the internet from being controlled by corporations and money, which risks excluding mainly minority viewpoints that are often not associated and supported with the big bucks.

This relates to an important question regarding the nature and form of democracy. Democracy is a contested concept, it’s meaning differs according to country, economic and social contexts. Essentially, democracy can mean different things to different people; politicians spend a lot of time and energy fighting over the claim to democratic principles. However, for democratic claims to be made against the supporting of net neutrality plays into the hands of some corporates’ detrimental greed and profit motivated activity that curtails freedom of expression, access to information and alternative views.

SilenceBreakers, of whom I am one of the Directors for, is a progressive social enterprise that seeks to challenge the unequal provision and access that already exists regarding the internet and computers alongside recently launching a net neutrality campaign asserting the importance of fair, accessible internet access. A unique feature of SilenceBreakers’ work is its ethical focus upon reconditioning computers, often involving the participants within this process, to then help teach the participants vital social media skills alongside selling these reconditioned computers to either the participants or the local community, as the projects take place in primarily disadvantaged areas, to provide these often socially and economically excluded groups with a voice.

This unique attribute tackles an often forgotten aspect of net neutrality, something the SilenceBreakers net neutrality campaign discusses in more detail; that net neutrality is more than just internet speeds and bandwidth, it is about the actual resources and material ability to access a computer and the internet. As the government sets out to make boundary changes that will knock many poor, ethnic and disadvantaged voters off the electoral register, these same groups are often prevented from gaining access to the internet, a vital tool and – as the creator of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, said – a human right.

Ron Paul cites the US Constitution as a defender of free speech and how this is ensured by limited or no state intervention; how though, in a world of increasing corporate dominance, do we ensure that those with the money and most of the resources do not prohibit those with the least from accessing tools and resources they need to get their often unrepresented voice out? That’s the key question. Capitalism is often cited as the catalyst behind democratic transitions. To an extent, you can’t deny the influence capitalism had on the forces of production as technology and transport for instance has improved and helped with more democratic forms of governance. However, capitalism isn’t inherently democratic; the wars, environmental destruction, corruption, money obsessed greed and crucially when it comes to net neutrality, the corporate dominance of things such as the internet illustrate the conflicts these social and economic relations have upon democratic currents.

Instead, new forms of governance, framed by a move away from neoliberal capitalist greed is needed. Ideally, local forms of public assemblies would ensure more freedom of expression whilst meeting key characterisers for democracy; there is a reason for why classic democracy regarding Polis institutions are essential to democratic studies and research. However, the realities of the current system require also a much needed regulatory and insurance of provisions that prohibit such undermining of internet access for certain groups of people, especially those without the money. Ron Paul’s individualism is ignorant to the reality of the power of a political and economic minority.

By the term corporation however, that’s not to stereotype and stigmatise all corporations or to say that corporations are fundamentally evil entities. SilenceBreakers is even a corporation limited by guarantee. Rather, it is to emphasise that under this current political economy, entities including some corporations can sometimes abuse their power and resources to the point that freedom of speech and equal access to information is compromised in favour of profit and sometimes political control as alternative views are excluded. SilenceBreakers works with corporations in collecting computers and equipment that they no longer need, helping with their environmental policies whilst providing SilenceBreakers with needed equipment to recycle and recondition in use of vital net neutrality promoting projects. Corporations here are playing a much needed role in assisting with access to the internet. There are corporations that are defending net neutrality principles, even if companies like Google claim they are and don’t in reality. Therefore, it’s essential not to take a simplistic viewpoint regarding corporations casting them off as all fundamentally evil things.

In sum, net neutrality is about ensuring democracy and freedom of speech. This can happen with the help of corporations, even if some have a detrimental controlling effect upon internet access – which libertarians such as Ron Paul seem to neglect in their naïve advance of laissez faire economics.

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