Two Political Economy Approaches to Network Neutrality
Harold Innis’ work may provide the clearest model for placing network neutrality in a historical context. In the last century, the high capital costs of the production of paper, radio and television communication created a “monopoly of knowledge… that invited competition from a new medium of communication, which appeared on the fringes of [American] culture and was available to meet the demands of lower strata of society” (Innis, 2007, p. 146). When similar monopolies of knowledge have arisen in human history, they “developed and declined partly in relation to the medium of communication on which they were built and tended to alternate as they emphasized religion, decentralization, and time, and force, centralization, and space” (Innis, 2007, p 192). Whereas the production and distribution of radio and television favours the centralization of production and “one-to-many” broadcast distribution, the internet favours decentralization of production and “many-to-many” distribution of communication. Because the internet has disrupted the monopolies of the previously dominant media, it is the bias of these competing media, and the financial capital interested heavily invested in each of them, that is the source of the conflict over network neutrality.
“The debate about network neutrality is often portrayed as protection of the consumer experience, and regulations are often framed in these terms. But it should be clear that what happens to the consumer is a by-product of how the battles among the large stakeholders are resolved” (Clark, 2007, p.706). In How to Think about Information, Dan Schiller argues that in the evolution of the U.S. telecommunication system “industrial, financial, and commercial telecommunication users have played a formative and even a determining role” (Schiller, 2007, p. 61). It is a mistake, he writes, to focus on the supply side because “the demand side of the telecommunications equation has been pivotal” (ibid, p.61). Just as business-user demand helped justify the post-office system and the telegraph was “disproportionately used by large-scale enterprises oriented toward a truly national political economy” (ibid, p.62), so too the regulated AT&T telephone monopoly was born out of the policy preferences of business-user pressure groups (ibid, 63). In the 1980s and 1990s, desktop computers and local area networks (LANs) “mushroomed mostly throughout major corporations” (ibid, p. 78) creating the “accelerating demand for cheap, wider-area interconnectivity” (ibid, p. 79) that justified “two-thirds of the spectacularly increased Internet investment” (ibid, p.79). Schiller’s argument suggests that a study of network neutrality interrogates the role played by demand side business-users in lobbying for their preferred policy outcomes, in addition to the relationships between network owners, consumer groups and grassroots movements.