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Culture shield

Last year, the Deep End featured a post on the issue of net neutrality. Somehow it got mentioned a lot on Reddit – a social news site with a massive international user base. The result was a surge of traffic to ConservativeHome, producing a vertiginous one-day spike that played havoc with our page view statistics for the whole year.

ConHome is no tiddler. Within the sphere of UK politics, we can reasonably claim to be the most influential independent website in the country – and certainly one of the most-read. But what last year’s traffic spike illustrates is that the internet as a whole has become dominated by an ever-smaller number of super-sites. This has all sorts of implications, not least for net neutrality.

Here’s the Economist on the issue:

“Internet service providers (ISPs) like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable are adamant that the internet should remain free of regulations that would bar them from limiting or charging bandwidth-hogging users such as Netflix and YouTube. During the prime-time hours of 6pm to 10pm, these two popular websites for streaming video account for half of all internet traffic in America.”

Advocates of net neutrality insist that without regulatory guarantees the internet could be stitched-up by the biggest players:

“…two internets might emerge: a fast lane for content providers willing to pay for first-class service; and a slow lane for everyone else. They argue that, unable to afford the internet’s fast lanes, start ups and other innovators might not be able to compete effectively with established web giants—and that could hobble innovation.”

In last year’s post, I compared the internet to the national road network and imagined what would happen if the network operator were allowed to favour one supermarket by imposing a lower speed limit on the delivery vehicles of a rival supermarket. I suggested that this would be pure rentier economics and that ordinary consumers would pay the price.

Of course, the parallel is far from exact. For a start, the infrastructure of the internet, unlike most of the road network, is owned by private companies. Furthermore, because internet traffic can be squeezed through narrow strands of copper, glass and plastic, the internet is largely free from the spatial constraints that apply to roads:

“…a decade or so ago… internet traffic was generated by thousands of individual companies. Now, the bulk of it comes from just 30 or so web giants, including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Netflix and Twitter. Because such web firms move so much data, they have had to do deals with the large ISPs to let them bypass the internet’s backbone and connect directly to the last-mile pipes the ISPs use to link users to the internet.”

In effect, it’s as if the supermarkets were building their own private roads for the exclusive use of their own delivery vehicles – which, in an internet context, seems fair enough. Obviously, that still leaves the point at which the private roads feed back into the shared network – which is where the principle of net neutrality must be upheld.

However, there’s even more at stake here. In recent years we’ve heard an awful lot about how the internet is driving the decentralisation of power. There was, for instance, talk of a ‘blogging revolution’ in which ‘citizen journalists’ would challenge the established media for control of the news agenda.

It hasn’t really worked out that way. Sites like ConservativeHome and Guido Fawkes are the exception rather than the rule. Our main competition doesn’t come from other bloggers, but from the online operations of the established print publications.

Far from being a force for decentralisation, the internet is being centralised. Both in terms of the user experience and the physical gubbins that underlies it, control is being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.

One could say the same about the free market in general; major players tend to emerge from the initial ferment that characterises new industries. This sorting of the wheat from the chaff can be a good thing, of course – but only for as long as competition is maintained and the big companies are open to ongoing challenge from new market entrants.

That is why it is vital that the core of the internet remains a genuinely open and neutral space in which everyone has a chance to be the next big thing.

9 comments for: Heresy of the week: Is the internet really a force for decentralisation and democracy?

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