Social Network Structure of Network Neutrality

Network Neutrality in Two Countries

A survey of network neutrality debates in both the United States and Canada shows that they have been engaged from the (non-exclusive) perspectives of business management, culture studies, economics, journalism, law, marketing, political economy, public administration, public relations, science and technology studies (STS), and technical engineering. Generally, the ideological and intellectual arguments which have been marshalled to these debates betray the liberal ideology of economic and political elites: much of the discussion presumes that perfect competition is preferable so the debates largely centre on whether there is sufficient competition in the telephone-cable duopolies which exist in most geographic markets (Cleland, 2009). Consequently, these debates are less about whether the networks should be regulated than they are about who should regulate the networks: one side attempts to reassert government regulation in the ‘common carrier’ tradition while the other seeks to advance corporate consolidation in the tradition of the ‘enclosure of the commons’: “more private control for corporate users, network suppliers, and investors translates into less societal control and reduced democratic accountability” (Schiller, 2008, p.96).

In a 22 January 2006 article in The Washington Post, journalist Christopher Stern described the conventional wisdom of the two teams in “The Coming Tug of War Over the Internet”: the FCC-approved mega-mergers in the telecommunications sector in 2005 and the U.S. Congress plan to rewrite the Telecommunications Act of 1996, set the stage for a conflict between two camps (Stern, 2006). The first camp, Stern wrote, is composed of public interest groups joined by Google, Yahoo, and “hundreds of other companies that do business on the Web” which would fight to preserve the status quo of network neutrality on the internet. The opposing camp is composed of AT&T, Verizon, BellSouth, Comcast, Time Warner and other cable companies seeking to develop new revenues from their ownership of internet “on-ramps”. On 8 June 2006, professors Lawrence Lessig and Robert McChesney co-authored an editorial in The Washington Post which described network neutrality as “the most important public policy you’ve probably never heard of” (Lessig & McChesney, 2006) and expanded the field of combatants to “high-priced lobbyists; coin-operated think tanks; and sham ‘Astroturf’ groups” versus a “real grass-roots coalition of more than 700 groups, 5,000 bloggers and 750,000 individual Americans”. In November 2007, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama released a technology policy plan which strongly supported network neutrality (Techweb, 2007). When Republican presidential candidate John McCain released his technology policy plan in August 2008 it strongly opposed network neutrality regulations (Techweb, 2008). While recognizing the philosophical and ideological differences which inform the two candidates, a Bloomberg.com article by Christopher Stern declared that “A Barack Obama presidency would bode well for Google Inc. A John McCain victory would be good for AT&T Inc” (Stern, 2008).

During a February 2007 debate in the Canadian House of Commons, Bloc Quebecois MP Paul Crête unsuccessfully challenged Conservative Minister of Industry Maxime Bernier to commit the government to the principles of network neutrality (Canada, 2007). The next day, the Canadian Press reported that the Minister’s backgrounder was decisively against taking regulatory action: “At this point it is premature to adopt a position on net neutrality” (Geist, February 6 2007). In September 2008, the business section of the Toronto Star ran an editorial in which Michael Geist continued his campaign for network neutrality in Canada (i.e. see Geist, 2005, 2006, 2007) by noting that both Obama and McCain had “unveiled detailed digital policy positions” but that “Canadian leaders have yet to promote their policies” (Geist, 2008). Geist urged candidates and Canadians to discuss five digital issues – including network neutrality – in the weeks leading up to the October 2008 Canadian federal election.

Social Network Structure of Network Neutrality

Early in the 20th century Social Network Analysis (SNA) developed out of attempts to use graph theory to study and represent the structure of complex relationships between members of social groups (Sola Pool & Kochen, 1978). López and Scott, quoted in Knox, Savage & Harvey, state that “the basic presumption of social network analysis is that sociograms of points and lines can be used to represent agents and their social relations. The pattern of connections among these lines in a sociogram represents the relations structure of a society or social group” (Knox, et al, 2006, p. 117). Researchers engaged in the study of ‘ego-networks’ “do not enumerate all the relationships between all members of a (sub-) population, but only between a given individual and his or her ‘alters’” (Knox, et al, 2006, p.118). The study of ‘whole networks’, however, requires that data on a whole populations be collected so that “all the ties in a given population can be measured to understand the complete structure of role relationship” (ibid, p.119).

This qualitative experiment attempts to combine a number of ego-networks into a representative whole network, before using SNA to test three hypotheses about the political economy of network neutrality debates in Canada and the United States:

  1. the network neutrality debates in Canada and the United States share the same pool of actors because the economic interests are transnational corporations;
  2. the relationships between those actors will reveal a conflict between the supply side and the demand side;
  3. relationships will align with corporate actors with NGOs which share their policy position.