Susan Crawford on network (substrate) neutrality


One of the problems with the way my feed aggregator (Bloglines) lists my many subscriptions is that they get presented in alphabetical order within a folder. There’s now 63 blogs in my “blogs” folder. When I start to read I usually start at the top of the list, but rarely get to the bottom. Which means that I almost always read the Apple Blog and BoingBoing, and fairly frequently make it as far a Jon’s Radio and mamamusings, I don’t get to Susan Crawford’s blog as often as I should.

That’s something I intend to correct, because Susan is writing some of the most intelligent commentary on the state of the discussion of Internet law and regulation. Last week she posted a great essay on network neutrality, or as she thinks we ought to term it, substrate neutrality.

You should stop reading my blog and go read Susan’s now.

But when users say “internet” they mean relationships. We forget, because so many machines are involved, that the internet is a social world. Users don’t think about transport — they’re indifferent to the substrate. They care about what they do there. And what they do is create a complex adaptive system unlike any other communications network we’ve ever had before. The unpredictable ecology of the internet could never have been generated by a broadcaster or a newspaper. It’s constantly revising itself in response to the feedback it’s getting from everyone. And its value is almost wholly unrelated to the work carried out by the access valves, the gatekeepers to internet access. As I’ve said before, the internet is like an ocean, but formed through attention rather than nature. (And, just as we’re almost totally ignorant of the life-forms beneath the waves, we don’t know all that much about what’s going on on the internet.) The essence of our relationship to this ecology, this complex adaptive system, is one of explanation/comprehension — at the most. We can’t predict what it will do next.

The point about this ecology is that it is largely indifferent to the substrate it’s carried on. The CD is not the song. The term “network neutrality” doesn’t capture this — we should consider using “substrate neutrality” instead. Otherwise the network providers’ arguments are so easy: “But it’s our network!” they can say. (AT&T’s new slogan is “Delivering your world,” as if the online experience was a visual pizza. We won’t even need to rise from the couch.)

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