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In the wake of the Federal Communication Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules on December 14, CrimethInc. teamed up with Bill Budington of the Electronic Frontier Foundation to produce a jeremiad entitled “Anarchist Perspectives on Net Neutrality: The Digital Enclosure of the Commons” (Digital Enclosure henceforward). It offers a distorted, highly oversimplified, and unduly pessimistic view of the net neutrality situation that tacitly assumes zero resistance on the part of anyone but a few anarchist geeks.
Just for starters, net neutrality isn’t necessarily doomed. The states of New York, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Iowa, and Massachusetts are suing the FCC to reinstate net neutrality, or at least eliminate the rule prohibiting states from imposing it on their own. In addition a movement is afoot in Congress to overrule the FCC and mandate net neutrality in some form or other. Such a bill wouldn’t have had a chance in 2017, but Republicans, facing a potential bloodbath in the midterm elections, might well support a return to some form of net neutrality in 2018 to help preserve their faltering Congressional majority.
Worse, CrimethInc. and Budington’s coverage of potential countermeasures is inexcusably thin. A few of the possibilities they missed include:
Municipal broadband – Even before net neutrality was kicked in the head, some rural towns, dissatisfied with the horrible service offered by the major ISPs, were experimenting with becoming ISPs themselves. Currently there are 185 municipal broadband providers in the US. While this is a tiny drop in a huge bucket, we can expect such efforts to gain serious traction if Comcast et al enact the worst excesses allowed by the new rules. The bad news is that about 20 states have laws, rammed through by ISP lobbying muscle, that limit or prohibit municipal broadband. Again though, efforts to repeal such laws will increase dramatically once customers are hit with the reality of, say, a five gigabyte monthly cap on Youtube viewing.
Calyx – A nonprofit ISP offering a cell tower-based service that includes a virtual private network and unlimited data. Calyx users are mailed a small wifi router that connects to the internet over Sprint’s network. Unfortunately Calyx charges $500 up front for a year of service. They are also a small company without the capacity to handle a huge increase in business. Their business model however, is likely to be imitated by numerous competitors as demand for non-throttled internet access skyrockets.
Tor and the Darknet – CrimethInc. points out in Digital Enclosure that “Unfortunately, there’s no anarchist alternative, no people’s internet to build up instead; this is the only one.” This is technically true, but we do have a very reasonable facsimile of a people’s internet, the so-called Darknet of Tor hidden services. The corporate media usually only report on hidden services when the FBI takes down another Darknet drug market, but they can be used for any kind of server that would function on the normal internet. The nice thing about Tor hidden services is not just that they obscure the IP address of the server, but that anyone can set one up on their home internet connection. There is no need to register and pay for a domain name, or to configure routers to pass incoming traffic to the right machine – the Tor infrastructure handles all that automatically, even in the face of dynamic IP addresses. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this feature. Commercial ISPs have been crippling the potential of the internet forever, not by throttling certain traffic, but by prohibiting home servers, limiting upload speeds, and changing customer IP addresses unpredictably. Youtube, Facebook, Blogspot, and many other web sites that depend on user-generated content, not to mention the entire web hosting industry, all owe their existence to users’ being so glad to get off dial-up in the nineties that they were willing to accept this restriction. Imagine a home server appliance that would plug into your router and let you publish everything from cat videos to relationship status updates without corporate assistance. If it wasn’t for ISP bureaucracy you could have had one. Would Gmail ever have taken off if users could just check an ‘Enable email’ box on their home server’s configuration page? Probably not. Thanks to hidden services this forgone paradise is again within reach, not that you’d ever know it from reading CrimethInc.
In a recent interview with Unicorn Riot, Budington did mention Tor, but only in the context of using it to disguise web traffic to avoid throttling, an idea which he then dismisses as impractical because Tor tends to slow down connection speeds. He neglects to mention that Tor is a lot faster than it used to be, due to an ongoing increase in the number of nodes available to transfer Tor-specific traffic. As for any other viable response to the loss of net neutrality, we can expect an upsurge of interest in Tor, which should lead to more individuals and institutions running nodes. And really, it’s not that slow now; I use it on my phone with minimal inconvenience. A greater problem is that many web sites refuse to accept connections from Tor exit nodes, but there are technical workarounds for this too.
IPTV – Budington raises the specter of having to pay Comcast extra for the privilege of paying Netflix at all. He might have added: To watch content that is mostly available for free on the Pirate Bay. But while bittorrent is likely to be the first casualty of the FCC’s new regulatory regime, users can turn to pirate versions of Netflix known as IPTV. Subscriptions to IPTV providers run as low as $10 a month, a rate that lets viewers save money by stealing from giant corporations instead of supporting them. New IPTV providers pop up so often that ISPs’ attempts to block them will be pretty much just another game of whack-a-mole.
Speaking of whack-a-mole, Budington’s fears of ISPs’ blocking radical web sites are overblown. First of all, just because they’re now allowed to doesn’t mean they will want spend the money to actually do so. And besides, it’s impossible. The history of domain name blacklists is one of near-universal failure. They didn’t eliminate email spam, they didn’t eliminate porn, and they aren’t going to eliminate anarchist news and analysis either. The reason is simple: When a domain name is blacklisted its owners can simply register a new domain with a similar name serving the same content. Blacklist operators are therefore always playing catchup, a game they can never win. The Pirate Bay has been getting away with this trick for years, and CrimethInc. and IGD can do the same if they have to.
The one technological countermeasure that Budington and CrimethInc. do recommend, to the apparent exclusion of all else, is mesh networks, peer-to-peer networks of home routers, connected wirelessly, that allow participants to share messages and files with each other directly. Mesh networks are great in certain situations, but they aren’t going to save the internet singlehandedly. They work well in flat treeless places with a high population density, where a single antenna can reach hundreds of users. Scatter the user base and throw in some hills and vegetation and their efficiency plummets. Budington would have us “…build a structural alternative to the current Internet, an other network, one where our voices can not be silenced by a mere regulatory shift because no one else controls it but the communities that comprise it themselves”. This would essentially mean building a mesh network that covers the entire country, which isn’t going to happen. Small isolated mesh nets are only useful if they can connect to the larger internet, typically through a backbone internet provider such as DE-CIX. That means running a mesh network still requires dealing with a large corporation, just one with less experience than Comcast in ripping off retail customers. At some point they’re going to start catching up. None of the above means you shouldn’t join or start a mesh network if you want, just don’t expect them to be a silver bullet.
In short, internet access after net neutrality is likely to be both more complicated and less dire than that predicted by Digital Enclosure. The quality of one’s internet service is likely to depend one’s income, location, technical sophistication, and determination, but the internet isn’t going to turn into cable TV overnight, or probably ever. Remember, “the internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it”. This isn’t just because of the decentralized networking protocols on which it is based, but also the way in which internet communication allows people to directly collaborate on solutions to shared problems, unencumbered by authoritarianism and bureaucracy. So don’t panic yet. Instead, use the few months of net neutrality we have left to hone your skills, increase your knowledge, and fine tune your plans. The fight’s just starting…
NOTE: A previous version of this piece failed to mention that Budington’s comments about Tor were made in an interview with Unicorn Riot, not in Digital Enclosure.