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Re-imagining the Net Neutrality "Debate"

Karl Marx has found his way into the discussion concerning net neutrality in myriad ways; all for the wrong reasons. From the nod to Marx in Eben Moglen’s “The dotCommunist Manifesto” (which not only remains relevant today but can easily be factored into the argument for neutralism within the net neutrality discussion), to equating the ideals for an open internet to a Marxist/communist utopia (in a bad way), to the Koch-backed group American Commitment’s understanding of net neutrality’s detrimental impact on U.S. capitalism and innovation. I want to incorporate Marx differently, but only because I believe that transplanting his understanding from the earlier capitalist mode of production and distribution sheds light on why the net neutrality debate ultimately does not matter. Instead, Marx's thinking in terms of internal conflict is the only legitamate way to understand the importance of the internet and its impact on social relations between humans.

But let’s start with a simplified understanding of net neutrality. Imagine a company that has long been servicing a number of villages by supplying them with water. Every village gets water delivered at the same speed, everyone pays the same monetarily, and a new village can be added at any time to the service under the same circumstances as everyone else. But one village—and let’s call it Netflix—begins to require more water in order to service its growing population, and the villagers become angry. Does the water company charge Netflix more for their service? As a result, does this cause Netflix to charge the villagers more for access? And (and this one’s a big one) if Netflix is paying more for the service than others, doesn’t this ruin the rules on which the relationship has been built? Though I’m not an economist by any means, I would suggest that the answers to these questions transcend simple supply and demand, especially when we complicate the scenario by adding more Internet Service Providers (ISPs), separate the transmission of the internet into “peering” and the “Last Mile” in order to pinpoint what end users should pay for and, most importantly, attempt to categorize the internet as a resource, commodity, market, or any other single nomenclature that cannot grasp the immensity and pervasiveness of this continuously growing entity.

Fortunately, the actual “debate” over net neutrality isn’t much of a debate at all. Both consumers and companies (Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc.) strongly oppose the need to change the economic and political standards of an open internet that the U.S. currently enjoys. No one wants to create a situation where ISPs can control the speed at which end users receive their internet, nor does anyone want to have to pay more to get that service—except for the ISPs themselves. John Oliver demonstrates this point more succinctly and humorously than I can, but what the issue really boils down to is strong political ties between cable providers, the FCC, and the U.S. government. To that end, understanding net neutrality and the road to a monopoly of cable providers (especially considering the Comcast and Time Warner Cable merger) is useful for activism. In other words, simplifying the future of the internet to either a completely free utopia on one hand and a monopolistic internet on the other makes it easy for the general population to pick their side and share their input with the FCC.

But while net neutrality is fundamentally a discussion about the future of the internet, I would argue that there are more than two points of view when approaching an issue of this magnitude. The aforementioned rhetoric, which aims to synthesize the roles of the internet into a binary option, is too simple. This is diminishing something that is simultaneously the backbone of the current global market and is rapidly becoming an addition to basic human rights (and has already been deemed a human right in countries like France, Finland, Greece, among others). I would suggest that the debate requires an understanding of how integral the internet has become, and this can be seen through an examination akin to Marx’s process as it is laid out in Vol. I of Capital.

At the most basic level, Marx was interested in how humans interact with the world and each other and how that relation has manifested itself in a particular place and time in history. Hence, any attempt to modernize Marx’s labor theory of value has to understand that Marx was referring to not only a mode of capitalism that was unique in terms of method (i.e. factories), but also factories in a specific location. But while I do want to apply Marx’s thinking to the internet, I instead want to focus on the process instead of the result. More specifically, instead of thinking in a strictly dialectical mentality or using his understanding of a commodity in contemporary times, I want to think about how humans interact with the world in the U.S. today. The best way to do this is to study the internet like Marx studied the commodity—to attempt to understand the intrinsic contradictions that are inherent in whatever it is that is fundamental for understanding social and economic life.

As a result, the real use for net neutrality in this discussion is, thinking back to the village example, how we might consider the use and value of the internet for differing parties. Unlike Marx’s commodity—which gained value only because of its social component— the internet has value to anyone as long as they simply have access to it. In this way, it might be thought of as similar to state utilities like water or electricity, but with an added quality of degree (in most locations, I can pay $50 more a month than you and get faster internet). I want to offer this value, perhaps something like “access value,” as a new type of value that must be entered into the equation. For Marx in Capital Vol. I, a commodity only had use-value in consumption and, as a result, was dialectically opposed to exchange value because it also had to serve as a use-value for someone else:

In order to become a commodity, the product must be transferred to the other person, for whom it serves as a use-value, through the medium of exchange (131).

From that dialectic, Marx was able to move outward from commodity to labor, eventually ending up with the fundamental understanding of the relationships between people.

Without continuing the relation to Marx’s commodity and getting into a discussion over the labor that becomes crystalized in the maintenance and upkeep of the internet, I would suggest that approaching the internet for the purpose of understanding its intrinsic contradictions becomes simply unwieldy. In other words, it has too much (or too many) value(s). Not only does it have a modern equivalent to exchange value, it creates its own medium of exchange that differs from any other good in circulation (not just when itself is exchanged in terms of distribution, but also when considering the rise in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin). It also possesses this form of access value which, unlike a use-value that is tied to a specific moment in capitalism, is a value that moves beyond the market of exchange to the realm of human rights. There is also a social value that is perpetuated by the infrastructure and lack of barriers to entry of the internet in terms of its use for a collective similar to Hardt and Negri’s “common.” In addition to the ability to share knowledge for the betterment of technological development and research, access to the internet is becoming a component of the community that is surpassing the desire for quality education. The village example also highlights an element of diminishing resources that exists within the process of transferring internet service that manifests itself in bandwidth. As more video gets distributed with increasing size (for example, newer 4K videos) across networks, bandwidth is going to become an issue with mounting severity that resembles an inverted value—companies will have to pay more as the resource diminishes.

But viewing the internet in this way is exactly how it needs to be seen, even if the results do not mirror those found in Capital and Marx's other writings. Still, I think Marx’s approach of dissecting the most socially and economically instrumental entity and moving outward is the most beneficial approach to learning the significance of how the internet impacts society and human interaction today (even if Marx was able to concentrate solely on the dialectical values within the commodity as opposed to multiple values that intersect in the many forms of the internet). While it is useful to distill the future of the internet in order to forge a public outcry against a fictional debate, there are bound to be further issues down the line that will call for radical reconstitutions of how we interact with the internet. And when the debate is no longer between logic and profit or popular opinion and monopoly, but is instead represented by two balanced and equally supported opinions, the need for a better understanding of the internet’s role will be essential. I certainly cannot offer that here but, to be fair, Marx spent a lifetime writing and reading inconceivable amounts of texts to reach his understanding of the link between labor, commodity, and social relations. Imagine how he might tackle the internet.

-Chandler Warren

Marx, Karl. Capital Volume I. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

#19thcentury #chandlerwarren #marxism

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