Neutralism is the new S-word

Scott Cleland has done some interesting quote-diving from the works of the neutralists, offering up his findings in a new study. Without using the term “socialism” Scott provides the evidence that this is largely an anti-capitalist movement. The fact that a few highly-profitable capitalist enterprises have found a way to manipulate a rather traditional form of digital utopian socialism for their own ends is the real news, however.

Anyhow, enjoy Scott’s paper and think about the notion of a “digital kibbutz” while you’re doing it. Now that we live in a time where government owns the banking system, “socialism” isn’t a bad word in all contexts automatically, but we do have to understand that we need to apply different expectations to government-managed systems than we do to privately-managed ones. It’s not as obvious to me as it is to the neutralists that government is more likely to give us universal high-speed connectivity than is business.

UPDATE: See comments for a critique of Scott’s analysis by Brett Glass.

34 thoughts on “Neutralism is the new S-word”

  1. Scott’s paper contains many interesting insights and analogies, but fails to capture the full scope of “neutralism,” as he calls it. For example, he says that “neutralists” are opposed to “Big Business,” “Big Broadband,” and “Big Media.” But in reality, their agenda is even more potentially damaging to small players and new entrants in all of these areas. Large businesses can tolerate some regulation. But smaller and more innovative ones will suffer much greater harm — and see opportunities to grow and raise capita disappear more quickly — under a “network neutrality” regime. Venture capitalists, in particular, are highly allergic to regulated industries; they won’t invest in them. And they will insist that companies in which they invest which come under a regulatory regime be sold so that they can recover their capital before innovation is stifled.

    Unfortunately, a lack of new entrants into the broadband arena means duopoly — something which supporters of “network neutrality” claim to deplore but which they are in fact promoting by opting for policies that destroy competition.

    It is also arguable whether Richard Stallman deserves credit for being a “father of neutralism.” While Stallman’s agenda is indeed destructive, it doesn’t seek to regulate others’ assets; in fact, it relies upon the existence of intellectual property — copyrights in particular — to operate. Rather, Stallman seeks to destroy software developers (whom he regards as evil) by competing with them, driving the value of their assets to zero. (Steve Levy, in his book, “Hackers,” documents the story of how Stallman — happily cloistered in academia — came to despise commercial software developers because he felt that his academic Nirvana was being destroyed as programmers left it to form companies.)

    Cleland is correct, however, in noting that “neutralists” seek services without payment. Because they seek to force network operators, by regulation, to provide services below cost, they are indeed seeking “something for nothing.” The danger, of course, is that providers which cannot cross-subsidize Internet service from other businesses (e.g. telephones or TV) will fail, and those that can cross-subsidize may survive but won’t be healthy. This is contrary to the “network neutrality” advocates’ professed goal of universal broadband coverage. Someone has to foot the bill — and while the government may provide some seed money via “stimulus” funding, it will do no good if the resulting networks cannot so much as break even. Eventually, they will lose far more than the amount of the subsidy. This is why the network neutrality “strings” attached to the broadband funding in the recent stimulus bill are so destructive. Some companies will surely swallow the bait and then succumb to the “poison pill” embedded within it, to the detriment of consumers.

  2. Cleland also fails to note the roles of “technology centers” at university law schools — in particular, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard; the Stanford Center for Internet and Society; and Silicon Flatirons at the University of Colorado — in shaping and supporting the agenda of “network neutrality” advocates. (Columbia professor Tim Wu is claimed, by Silicon Flatirons, to have been the first person to utter the phrase “network neutraltiy” at one of their conferences; see These centers, all funded by Internet content provider Google (which has been a major supporter of, and lobbyist for, network neutrality regulation), consist of lawyers who could well profit tremendously from the billable hours generated by complex and/or onerous network neutrality regulations, and lawyers who were or are involved in regulation occupy high ranking positions on their staffs. Most have never actually operated a business, and are therefore unfamiliar with the real world logistics of keeping a business running. These centers have, for many years, been one-sided forums in favor of network neutrality regulation, and their influence cannot be underestimated.

  3. This reminds me why, when all is said and done, I’m still at heart on the “other side” than you folks :-(.

    Look, Richard, anyone who deals in these issues has heard all the variations of YOU’RE A COMMIE!!!
    It’s not an insight, it’s a rant.
    Lumping together everyone who is not a frothing property maximalist (“an anti-capitalist movement”) is silly and trite. As well as a tedious triviality. It’s not helpful when the marketing hucksters do it to sell to business, and and it’s similarly not helpful when telecom flacks do to play to business fears.

    Yes, not everyone is a radical hardcore Libertarian believing that unregulated markets are the solution to everything – especially not these days. Some policymakers are moderate capitalists who believe that in some cases, government access regulations promote better functioning real-life markets. This should not cause spasms of wonder at the very fact of it.

  4. That’s all true, Seth, but the fact remains that there are a lot of Commies on the pro-NN side of the aisle.

    But you’re right, the fact that folks like Benkler and Stallman are commies is less significant than the fact that they’re “vulgar Marxists” who fail to appreciate the lumpen proletariat’s toxic influence on the workers’ state. Serious commies understand that criminality and bourgeois self-indulgence are threats to the utopia of labor and have to be dealt with.

    So it’s not that they’re commies, is that they’re not even good commies that troubles me.

  5. Richard, would you think well of someone who said “the fact remains there are a lot of Fascists on the anti-NN side? … the fact that [X] and [Y] are Nazis is less significant that the fact they’re “vulgar authoritarians”, …”

    See how useless this is? (n.b., reference to Nazis is intentional, to make the point about it all).

    Note to Brett: How much is Scott Cleland getting paid?

  6. I don’t know, Seth, why don’t you make such an argument and stand behind it? I think the fact that the neuts rely on socialistic economic theory is interesting, and not a total refutation of their argument. Socialism is a respectable theory, and if that’s what these folks want, why are they reluctant to stand up and be counted?

  7. Because nobody is paying me to throw rhetorical bombs like that? I’m sure someone who specializes in PR flackery could whip something up, of course toned-down a bit from my hyperbole. But surely along the lines of , say: “The anti-NN’er suffers from an authoritarian personality disorder, with fascistic tendencies [insert quote here]. This is manifested by viewing telecom businesses in the same societal role as the nation in the Fascist State [insert quote here]. As with all weak minds, they rely on the myth of the strong leader [insert quote here]”, etc.

    Your point is a bit like asking why some people are reluctant to stand up and be counted as unrestricted monopolists (since many of these issues are about government-granted monopolies, and what conditions should accompany those).

  8. I think you’re missing the point, by a lot.

    The thought leaders of the net neutrality movement advocate a non-commercial model not only for the operation of networks, but for their uses as well. Net neutrality is properly seen, therefore, as an intrinsic part of a general quest to build a non-commercial (or less commercial) society and economy. The evidence is pretty clear that this is the case. Traditionally, such forms of social organization have been known as socialism, but Cleland takes great pains not to use that word.

    I don’t see why it should scare you (or offend you) that some people have the nerve to point this out, and no, I don’t find your attempts to stand the argument on its head clever or insightful. This analysis is not an attempt at psychobabble or simple red-baiting, it’s putting NN arguments in the context of the movement’s leaders on related issues.

    Most of the anti-NNers are libertarians or free market classical liberals whose ideologies are diametrically opposed to national socialism or any other form of authoritarianism. As far as the personalities go, I don’t think there’s a more authoritarian figure in American life than Richard Stallman.

    So I don’t know what you’re smoking.

  9. “The thought leaders of the net neutrality movement advocate a non-commercial model …”

    This premise is incorrect. Many “leaders” (e.g. Lessig) are fine with a commercial model, but with price nondiscrimination regulation. Others believe it should be a public utility, yes, though that doesn’t quite mean non-commercial except in a very technical sense. The prefered analogy is physical roads.

    The serious difference is all of this is a particular policy view on a specific issue, rather than all of them being very broadly committed to socialist economics as an overall program for all of society (in the real sense, not the silly talk-radio pundit sense). Taking one aspect is cherry-picking at best, distortion at worst.

    Again, it’s not courage to red-bait, it’s trite and annoying and non-thought.

    anti-NN’ers are “Fascist” in the same ranty way “Socialist” is ofetn used, which has little connection to the specific ideology and usually just means “fascist == very right wing”

    I’ll repeat my basic point: This stuff isn’t insightful. It’s *tedious*. It’s not revealing some deep dark motivation. It’s a longstanding generic flaming that everyone involved has heard over and over, and so is annoying.

  10. Gee, are you saying Lessig’s book “Free Culture” was meant to be titled “Inexpensive Culture: Two for the price of one special on aisle 3?”

    People who want to use their networks for non-commercial purposes naturally want them managed by non-commercial entities. It’s the kind of petty consistency that’s the hobgoblin of small minds.

  11. I’m saying the issue of “Was the _Brand X_ case wrongly decided, and should it be reversed by legislation, or administrative action?” really is not helped by rants implying socialism/commie/etc.

    We weren’t going to be living Red Star Over America if that case has gone the other way.

  12. We all know that NN is a much larger issue than unbundling. The Comcast case, the only government action since the emergence of this issue, had nothing to do with Brand X. The genie’s not going back inside the bottle, Seth.

  13. Seth, I have no idea how much Scott Cleland is being paid, or by whom. I do know that the network neutrality lobbyists are in the pay of Google, though.

    In any event, I think that is that this is one of Cleland’s better pieces precisely because it avoids labeling, name-calling, or sensationalism. It doesn’t call anyone “socialist,” “communist” or “fascist,” but does point out some of the connections between “network neutrality” advocates and related movements and ideas. If anything, its main deficiency is that, as I mentioned above, it leaves out a lot of key influences. (Seth, you seem to credit Lessig as a driving force behind “network neutrality.” I do not. rather, I think that Larry Lessig is trying to gain brownie points — and get funding — by latching onto something that was already going on. Lessig exemplifies the old saying, “If you want to look like a leader, find a parade and jump in front of it.” He tried to jump in front of Stallman’s parade, too, with “Creative Commons.”)

  14. I would agree that before Google jumped in, net neutrality was a pretty boring subject. I checked yesterday, and found that before 2006, the hot topic in neutrality law was whether silos were better than layers as regulatory structures for networks. Sheesh. After failing to gain any traction among serious regulators, Lessig & Wu turned to the Internet to build a fan base among Google’s rabble, and that’s how we got where we are.

  15. Brett, don’t you think you should have some idea what Scott Cleland is being paid, for perspective? Wouldn’t it matter if Cleland is in essence a propagandist for the telecos? His piece is not the worst of the red-baiting genre, but that’s damning with faint praise. But c’mon, it’s obvious what the point is – Richard got it, note his words: “Without using the term “socialism” Scott provides the evidence that …”. It’s trying to tar what’s at heart a policy debate over moderate regulatory constraints which are aimed at practical market efficiency, with all sorts of rabid ideologuing and culture-war nonsense.

    Richard, you’re buying into a myth. This is about Google’s money, not any rabble, and not Lessig and Wu. That’s what Cleland is smoke-blowing over by trying to make it about the horrors that not everyone is a radical corporate fanatic. If it’s about crazy people, well, they’re just crazy. If it’s about business battles, the other side might have a point (and a flack can’t admit that).

  16. If Cleland were spending millions to lobby Congress and trying to infiltrate Congressional offices and the administration, as are (for example) Free Press and Public Knowledge, I’d see him as a major player. But he’s just a blogger. It’s Google and its gaggle of astroturf groups, who are lobbying to regulate the Internet, that are the concern.

  17. You don’t think that the big telecos are spending “millions to lobby Congress and trying to infiltrate Congressional offices and the administration”? Wouldn’t you care if telecos/Cleland is like Google/FreePress?

    I think you are incorrect that he is “just a blogger”. I believe he is a formal lobbyist (i.e. not using that in the colloquial sense of the term, but in the specific , technical sense).

    Brett, you really seem to be trying to be wilfully ignorant of all the money on the teleco side – why? It’s not a secret.

  18. Actually, Seth, I think that the big telcos are too busy reeling from the departure of their customer base. The economic downturn has spurred everyone to switch to cellular phones and cut off their land lines. As a result, the telcos don’t have much time, effort, or money to devote to lobbying. I’ve met the telcos’ DC lawyers, and their attitudes are mostly resigned. They’re not speaking out against the lies, which is sad indeed. But they apparently can’t budget for it, because they do not have “all the money” as you say. In fact, watch for at least one of the three remaining ones — probably two — to go into bankruptcy within the next year or two and ask for a government bailout. You heard the prediction here first.

    As for Scott Cleland: he is neither a lobbyist nor a telco guy. He’s a neoliberal/free market libertarian pundit. Unlike Free Press, Public Knowledge, Media Access Project, or the New America Foundation, he does not have several MILLION dollars, nor dozens of staffers, to spread lies and create FUD. Scott has written some good and thoughtful pieces, some which are just doctrinaire, and some which are simply incorrect (such as the recent report which claims that Google is using more bandwidth than it is paying for…. Google is doing many things which are “evil,” but that does not happen to be one of them). Nonetheless, he is one of the few pundits to “push back” against Google’s massive lobbying effort in DC, which is a good thing. And his recent letter to Congress at is dead on.

  19. I have a feeling no figures are going to convince you. You’d just dismiss them as out-of-date.

    “… he is neither a lobbyist nor a telco guy. … ”


    That is thoroughly divorced from reality …

    The guy nearly won an award for lobbying!

    “Lobbyist: Scott Cleland”

    His teleco associations are all over his site. Did you even read his letter? Second page:

    “ is an e-forum on net neutrality funded by broadband companies …”


  20. Seth:

    You say, “I have a feeling no figures are going to convince you.”

    But you haven’t quoted any figures at all!

    In any event, it’s clear that while Cleland does operate some Web sites that are sponsored by broadband companies, he doesn’t operate a multimillion dollar propaganda operation, with dozens of full time lobbyists on staff, as do Free Press and Public Knowledge. The latter two groups seem bent on regulating all independent ISPs right out of business, by trying to legislate business models which — by simple arithmetic — won’t allow them to break even.

  21. “But you haven’t quoted any figures at all!”

    Right. Would it do any good? Does anyone care?
    After the Cleland exchange, isn’t it clear there’s no point?

    Are we agreed he’s a lobbyist funded by broadband companies?
    Look how hard that was 🙁

  22. In other words, you have no numbers at all. So you don’t know whether they bought him lunch or a mansion, and of course are hand waving by saying that it doesn’t matter.

    Weak argument.

  23. No, Brett, you would never accept any numbers I provided, so it would be a complete waste of time for me to devote any effort. You are completely close-minded on the topic and are not interested in anything which might contradict your preconceptions – e.g. “I have no idea how much Scott Cleland is being paid, or by whom”, when by-whom is right in the letter you yourself are recommending.


    Are we agreed he’s a lobbyist funded by broadband companies?
    Look how hard that was 🙁

    I rest my case.

  24. “You would never accept any numbers I provided….”

    “You are completely closed minded on the topic….”

    Argumentum ad hominem. Again, very weak and unconvincing.

  25. Umm, I am not attempting to prove my case with those statements. I am describing my reasons for not doing research as an exercise in futility. They are thus not a logical ad hominem.

    And note, ad hominem is used extensively analytically, you use it all the time – as a pure abstract matter, whether someone is paid by Google (or the Telecos) has no bearing on the truth of their statements.

    This whole thread is reminding me why I don’t like politics 🙁

  26. The “kerfluffle” is about the fact that Public Knowledge, Free Press, MAP, and New America are taking big, big bucks from Google to lobby for destructive regulation that suits Google. And Seth is saying that this is OK, because there’s one guy named Scott Cleland who is on the other side and might be taking some money (Seth can’t say how much, but it’s obviously much less than the millions the Net Neuterers are getting) from the telcos.

  27. There is indeed a lot of corporate money on both sides of this issue, much of it unacknowledged. Which leaves the third side of the issue – the unfunded WISPs like Lariat – without a megaphone. That’s a fair point, isn’t it Seth?

  28. To Brett, and Seth,

    Brett, Scott Cleland does not hide the fact that he is a consultant for the Telecoms. Cleland makes this VERY clear.

    Seth, one thing you can say about Cleland is that at least he is out in the open and not trying to hide behind a fake movement that pretends to be altruistic.

  29. Brett, I could play the game in reverse, demanding you prove every statement in detail while sneering, trivializing, and dismissing anything you said. But why bother? It’s not like it’ll do any good :-(.

    Richard, yes, if he just stuck to pointing out he’s getting trampled between two elephants, that would be quite a fair point. I can’t say it would get much in the way of results, but I’m bad at politics.

    George, true, but in his case I suspect it’s making a virtue of necessity.

  30. Seth, there’s no denying that transparency is a virtue regardless of the reasons. The point is that at least Cleland is transparent while the folks on the other extreme are not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *