[SL: Despite long-term engagement with technology, I remain something of a tech sceptic. I’m not the only lawyer who’s noticed that modern computer software often impedes the completion of important, time-critical tasks, or who has witnessed the property department at three different law firms refuse to part up with their IBM Selectrics.
This article, however, represents a different kind of tech scepticism, and one–I must admit–that simply hadn’t occurred to me. We very seldom published speculative contributions from people we don’t know, but this was too thought-provoking to pass up. Its author, Brian Hanley, is a research microbiologist with his own company specialising in life sciences. Enjoy.]
Let us declare that “print neutrality” shall be a non-negotiable principle. Print-neutrality guarantees that any person shall get equal distribution through any print media, regardless of merit or ability to pay. Pay a flat fee for “print access” to any delivery service, and everything comes to you: Any hate speech. Any wacko, dingbat, or puerile rubbish. Any fact-free drivel. It is all printed and delivered to the doors of everyone. All libraries must stock it – all of it – or be in violation of print-neutrality. All bookstores must provide space for it.
Any delivery service must deliver – for one flat fee – everything. All the rubbish unfit to print – and everything else. Printing and distribution costs are borne by the big companies. For all practical purposes everyone else gets massively subsidised; their material is printed and delivered nearly for free.
A family can pay for a service that will remove most pornography or other objectionable material from being delivered to their children, but all the child has to do to see it is get to the mailbox before the censoring service person comes around.
There are two big economic subsidies that were created to prop up the internet in its infancy. First is net-neutrality, which is the real reason why newspapers and magazines have experienced so much trouble. In a non-net-neutral world, the cost of transmission would have to be born by the source – through subscription or advertising.
Second is the internet tax break. In a world that didn’t subsidise online businesses by setting them free of local sales or consumption taxes, entities like Amazon could not have started. Whether you are pro or con on that issue, the fact remains that Amazon.com is an extremely low margin business. Just look at their profitability. That means an exemption from sales and local tax is critical for them. In reality, online sales and piecemeal delivery is generally the higher-cost system. Can Amazon.com survive without tax breaks at this point? Perhaps.
It isn’t immediately obvious to most people why this type of product delivery is more expensive. But I worked in warehousing and distribution systems (as a software/project manager) and learned a fair amount about it. So let’s put on a store owner’s hat. The main thing to realise is that a store is essentially a local distribution centre. When someone enters that store, they provide free labour to locate, pick, and carry product out the door. Then, they carry that product home – and it’s their dime, not yours. In addition, when they pick it up and take it away, they are far less likely to return the product.
Against this is the fundamental problem: a store has excess inventory that doesn’t get sold. But so does any distribution system. One of the things Amazon.com has done is to offload a lot of inventory management (mostly for oddball items) off onto subcontractors through “Amazon stores”.
Now that we have internet behemoths that were created by subsidy, and those have destroyed swaths of “bricks and mortar” business, the call of jobs! goes up whenever legislation to impose local taxes comes up before legislators. But the truth is that those internet businesses are mostly job destroyers, and generally create lousier jobs. Truth is, the real reason why the tax breaks can’t be repealed is that the behemoths have concentrated huge amounts of cash flow, so they can buy three things: access to legislators, story placements in media, and arm-twisting buy playing the “jobs” card. The recent negotiation between the State of California and Amazon.com is a case in point. Amazon.com made a deal to keep their sales-tax free status (unfair advantage) in return for locating a regional distribution center (RDC) in California. This says volumes about politicians. It speaks even louder about the priority Amazon.com places on its tax-free status. Give any business sector tax free status and it will thrive on the subsidy.
But let us circle back to net-neutrality, which is the primary focus of this article. If net neutrality is repealed, I think that will greatly improve the fortunes of journalism, because it will enliven the natural barriers to entry to being published. That will restore the place of news media companies as gatherers and arbiters, and make it possible for them to employ and pay journalists for their service.
The internet’s roots just prior to exploding on the public stage were academic. Academics have a peer centered egalitarian culture. They wanted to bring that to the world – I think naively. But academia also has a peer-review culture, and academia as a whole values the truth. Academics are also the products of a long, intense, very difficult winnowing process. Those features are not present in the world at large.
Academia did not think ahead to try to predict what the effect of net-neutrality would be, although there were early signs. I got on “The WELL” around 1993. At that point, this pre-internet BBS was a place where (like usenet) uncivil discourse occurred, although most were professional people. “The WELL” had already seen one member, Blair, bullied to suicide online, as chronicled by Howard Rheingold in “Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier.” I had my first, last, and only online date from “The WELL”, with a woman who announced that she wanted to flog me within the first 30 seconds. A LLNL server was found to be serving pornography. I am quite sure that drug deals also went down, but nothing overt. I didn’t care. Drugs weren’t my scene.
Academics did not think ahead and understand that a major feature of net-neutrality would be enabling the creation of a sea of pornography at everyone’s fingertips. As an example, I was asked a while ago about “Two Women and a Cup” a scat-porn clip that a 13 year old boy watched during recess. Boys were grossing each other out, and he wanted to know if he would have to do that when he grew up. I didn’t even tell his mother what it was, just that he was “getting to that stage”. She flipped out. So he would never talk to her. Kids today grow up in a sea of pornography of every kind.
Looking at what net-neutrality has wrought, a few things, like Wikipedia, are worthwhile. Everyone has their favorites. I am sure that if we declared a 20 year period of print-neutrality, that something could be pointed to at the end. Any subsidy will also allow some pleasant flowers to bloom.
But everyone knows that the internet has enabled the voices of the delusional, the uninformed, the hateful, the obnoxious and the idiotic. And that leaves aside the scammers, con-men, and snake-oil purveyors. That leaves aside the fact that net-neutrality subsidises all of the rubbish. Net-neutrality subsidizes sites that sell everything from illegal narcotics (viz. Silkroad) to Bitcoin (no transfer costs) to the overwhelming surfeit of blogs.
History also tells us that the printing press, even without print-neutrality, can also be a vehicle for organising great mischief. I will not belabor that.
And yet, nobody today is writing about net-neutrality with a critical eye. It is taken as axiomatic that net-neutrality is an unalloyed good. This is somewhat odd, considering that the economic sucker-punch journalists have taken from net-neutrality is greater than any other profession. The wild proliferation of blogs, racing journalism to the bottom is a direct effect of net-neutrality. Wa-Po is lampooned in Doonesbury for its unpaid blog aggregation as Jeff, the son of Rick Redfern makes a killing selling rabid fantasy rubbish while Rick is laid off into blogistan. Perhaps this fact illustrates the paucity of practical business experience on the part of most journalists, or perhaps it is just their inability to think things through. I don’t know.
Like the explicit subsidy of tax-free sales, I think I think the time has already passed for the implicit subsidy of net-neutrality to end. The internet experiment has run for over 20 years. We have a pretty good idea now what happens. We have not seen a promised land appear full of excellence that better informs the public. Extending net-neutrality requires a serious argument be put forward for doing so.
Perhaps there is a place for special treatment of certain entities. For instance, bona-fide educational institutions could get net-neutrality breaks. That could be implemented. A few new institutions like Wikipedia could get such special treatment. But when I look at it, I cannot justify net-neutrality.