The Neutrality Pyramid: A Policy Framework to Distribute Power Over the Net
39 Pages Posted: 11 Mar 2021 Last revised: 7 Jun 2021
Date Written: March 11, 2021
The internet used to be considered as a catalyst of positive social change. Yet such claims have become rare. Structured as a document for action in four steps, this report seeks to provide a rough compass for those trying to understand the underlying causes of much of what is problematic with the internet and the web today. I argue that paying attention to who shapes internet traffic (and how) is crucial. It will allow us to understand the connection between issues often considered unrelated (such as net neutrality and misinformation), as well as to anticipate challenges that are yet to emerge.
Step 1: Understanding the context: How the internet came to be seated on the defendant’s bench.
Here I describe how the inventors and developers of the internet and the web upheld the principle of decentralization to ensure the network was robust in the face of failure, and how this sparked hope for systematically excluded groups that had long been marginalized from public debate. I then describe four types of problems for which the web is often considered responsible, and explain the subset of these that I believe can be resolved through digital policies, narrowing the scope of this report to the issue of centralization.
Step 2: Understanding the present and future risks triggered by a centralized information system.
Here I describe how the internet and the web have been centralized. I explain how, given the characteristics of the process of centralization, the ongoing deployment of connected devices (also known as internet of things), as well as the growing developments in the fields of augmented reality and virtual reality are likely going to fuel the process of centralization further. Lastly, focusing on search and person-to-person communications, I explore the types of risks centralization poses to the present and future of our political system.
Step 3: Deploying the Neutrality Pyramid framework in order to redistribute power.
Here I present the Neutrality Pyramid, a framework around which we can rally to neutralize the process of centralization and reduce the scope of power of the incumbent gatekeepers. After explaining how and why the framework builds upon and extends the definition of net neutrality to other layers of the stack, I describe the technological, regulatory and activist actions taking place around the globe to forward and enforce the principles of net neutrality, device neutrality, platform neutrality and personal control over personal data.
Step 4: Enabling robust public deliberation towards a positive agenda.
I go beyond negative actions and explain how the Neutrality Pyramid can enable the development of a positive agenda. I explain that even though the neutrality principle presupposes a hands-off approach, it does include a set of exceptions enshrined by law. I argue that we should leverage the process of defining such exceptions as a means to ensure the institutions of democracy play a role in guiding the process of development of the internet, and I suggest some of the key questions public officials need to put forward. This section then discusses the development of public infrastructure and services as a way to bake democratic institutions into the growing digital sphere.
In the Conclusion, I outline the backdrop of weakened governments and global institutions of governance in which the upcoming debates regarding digital policy will take place, and the challenges the cold war discourse, with its militaristic undertones, poses in this context.
Keywords: web, internet, centralization, competition, net neutrality, device neutrality, neutrality pyramid, data portability
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