Back when I used to blog more regularly, one of the topics to which I kept returning was the seemingly imminent break-up or more rigid control of the Internet. Of course, China has its Golden Shield (and more) and paranoid autocracies like Iran and North Korea had promised to create their own separate and policed nets, but there were also increasing suggestions from the likes of then French President Sarkozy that the Internet should be, in his words, “civilized.” And then there was the continuous ongoing extension of online surveillance, both by states like the USA, transnational alliances like the Five Eyes, and mega-corporations like Facebook.
However, the last couple of days have seen two breaking stories that really do threaten to spark this long-threatened demolition of relatively free global communication. The first is a new blow in the long battle over ‘net neutrality’, the principle that all traffic on the Internet is created equal and treated equally. Many large corporations have long disliked this as it prevents them from providing openly differential levels of service, such as expensive ‘priority’ communications – even though there have always been less obvious ways of doing so. And the US neoliberal right has disliked it for the same reason. Under Obama, net neutrality enjoyed reasonable protection, but as soon as Trump took office and elevated free market fundamentalist, Ajit Pai, to the Chair of the Federal Communications Commission, net neutrality looked doomed. This week, the board of the FCC voted 2-1 to begin the process of ending it.
We don’t know how this will play out yet, but I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the day after this was announced, Theresa May, the Prime Minister of the UK, said that her government would create a completely controlled Internet in Britain (pretty much exactly what Iran and North Korea were proposing years ago). Other analysts have connected this to stronger surveillance powers recently introduced and, yes, it is connected. But the two bigger influences are the change in government and attitudes to the Internet in the USA and, of course, Brexit. It might seem contradictory that an ostensibly free market move is linked to repressive regulation, but that is precisely what neoliberalism is all about: the state acts either carelessly or repressively of social freedoms in favour of market freedoms.
As for Brexit, it seems to me that in order to carry out anything like the control of communications that May is proposing, Britain would have to be entirely outside of EU data protection and privacy regulations. Ironically, however, Brexit may be the one thing that stops May’s proposals from being as influential as they might otherwise have been. The proposals to control the Internet in the context of Brexit look like just another example of a puffed-up, paranoid and decreasingly influential country. It’s potentially going to be another thing that the European Union should absolutely use to distinguish what it offers to its citizens (and the world) compared to populist, authoritarian nationalisms. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the torturer, O’Brien might have described the future as “a boot stamping on a human head, forever,” but the UK’s future looks increasingly like “a nation shooting itself in the foot, forever.” If British people haven’t realised this yet, they’ve got time…
As for the USA, at present, our best hope is perhaps that the proposed end of net neutrality goes down with Trump’s ship, as he steers his bloated Titanic full-speed ahead into multiple icebergs.