Net Neutrality is dying – but not in the way you might think

Net Neutrality is defined as “the principle that Internet service providers and governments regulating the Internet should treat all data on the Internet the same, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication”. While many attacks have been made on Net Neutrality by large corporations, including trying to create a two tier internet & ISP’s slowing the traffic of competing streaming services, on the whole the basic definition of Net Neutrality has remained unscathed. However the definition of net neutrality may just be out of date.

As I see it, net neutrality is already dead. While it may be possible for anyone to create a website or web content & share it with the rest of the world, we have reached a point where a handful of gatekeepers restrict access to that content through their ubiquity & their algorithms.

Take my website for example. The vast majority of my traffic, more than 90%, now comes from google organic search. Only 5 or 6 years ago I would receive traffic from MSN (now bing), Yahoo, AOL, Ask and a plethora of other search engines. I would get hits from DMOZ and other directory sites & I would get lots of links from other blogs and websites.

Today, the majority comes from Google. Google has become the defacto search engine & this is a direct challenge to Net Neutrality. For one, algorithms cater all of your searches to you. This may sound wonderful, but it creates millions of separate filter bubbles. Before google made the algorithm changes that catered search results based on your own activity, a website would climb the ranks based on real world popularity. If you had an amazing blog post or popular webpage it would be promoted up the rankings for all users, regardless of their own browsing habits. This produced a genuine meritocracy in search & every website had its chance to shine, given the content was good.

A few years back, content was ranked based on how many other people linked to it & how authoritative it was deemed. This system could be gamed, but on the whole it worked very well. Around 2012 Google started to make changes. Probably due to the introduction of the Chrome web browser, Android phones and chrome books. Users started to integrate their online lives with Google. A google account was required for Youtube & Gmail and a whole host of their services. At this point, google had the perfect way to start slurping up all of your browsing data, all of your email contents, your google+ posts, your hangouts & messages. This allowed for specific catering of search results & pretty much ended authoritative content on google. This shift to locking users into google services was the first step of the major tech companies in shutting down net neutrality in a new way. It’s no good having great content if Google deems it of no use. This could have huge implications. Think political, social and corporate interests.

Google have made themselves the internet (and not just google, between google, facebook, twitter, instagram & spotify there isn’t any room for competition). By making themselves the first port of call for most web users, they have become the gate keepers. The judges of quality, the architects of our information.

This problem is further compounded by Google’s advertising model. My browser is very secure, I use Ghostery, Adblock & Privacy Badger to block as many trackers & adverts as possible. My search looks very different to that of most regular users, see the screenshots below.

Google with adblock
Google with adblock
Google without adblock - above the fold
Google without adblock – above the fold
Google without adblock - below the fold
Google without adblock – below the fold

As you can see from the above example, searching for badges on Google, in the top screenshot I’m given search results which aren’t filtered by any factors such as my browsing history, location or email contents. This is as close to how google used to work as possible. Without tailoring of my search results I’m mostly given the most relevant and best websites. This doesn’t take into account any blocking from search results google may have done of perfectly relevant content that has been deemed algorithmically unacceptable.

Now the bottom two screenshots tell a different story. That’s how my search looks when I’m logged into google & my ad blockers are turned off. They are hijacked considerably by advertising. Paid links. Most of the content above the fold is advertising content & is given more prominence through styling. It urges a user to click the content. This is not democratic. The more you can pay, the more you can sap search traffic towards content which may be incorrect, irrelevant or misleading. If you have the money, you can top all search results.

It’s the same below the fold, the bottom of the page is full of advertising and noise, the actual search results get lost amongst the noise. This is another way in which net neutrality is being destroyed. My search here is pretty mundane, just searching for badges in the UK, but imagine it was on searches such as climate change, political campaigns or even denial of events. If you had the bank roll & the manpower, you could top all relevant search results & influence a large part of the debate. Given that Google is now the defacto search engine, you could literally get any story in front of everyone searching a topic. The ability to shape or re-write history is yours if you can afford it. This will have profound effects on politics. We have already seen the power of the internet in politics both in the UK & USA and this will only get worse as people discover the power of the internet, not only to influence, but to avoid scrutiny.

I personally use startpage and duck duck go to search. It is not as convenient as being logged into a google account, but I know the results aren’t tailored & that my search history isn’t shaping my view of the internet. I recommend you all consider spreading your search wings & find less intrusive search engines.

Moving on to social media, if it’s photos you are sharing, you probably use Instagram (Facebook), if it’s instant messaging & text messaging, it’s probably whatsapp (Facebook) or Facebook messenger. If you want to share personal thoughts with close friends & family it’s probably Facebook you are using, and for more generic less personal sharing or professional social media use you probably use twitter. For your video watching, you probably use Youtube (google) & for music, no doubt it’s spotify.

You can see the issue here, nearly all of our online lives are controlled by a few companies. It is they who decide what we are allowed to see & they who take payment to promote the websites & views of those with the most money. You probably spend the majority of your time flitting between services owned by Facebook, Google & Twitter. This leads to a serious erosion of net neutrality as you are only exposed on the internet to content they see fit & proper (of course unless money is involved, in which case you can buy as many users eyeballs as your funds will allow).

Facebook is a company I have now distanced myself from. I have an empty profile on there & have even blocked access to Facebook urls in my hosts file on my computers. Facebook is the worst example of both data mining of users data & the filter bubble effect. Facebook wants to keep you online & on their platform, be it via a web browser or app. The Facebook feed used to be a basic set of status updates, you could visit & spend 10 minutes catching up with friends & sharing photos. It was a pretty benign service. I now see it as a serious threat to the open internet. Your Facebook feed is now a never-ending, algorithmically generated quagmire of information, all tailored specifically to you. If Facebook knows you are interested in something, it will show you more of that. Lots more of that. It’s almost impossible to finish using Facebook. All of your likes, all of your comments and all of your activity go towards building a picture of you. They profile every user & compare you to other users. Content other users similar to you like is shown to you. Your bubble becomes smaller and smaller until everybody is exposed only to information which they relate too.

This tailoring of information may sound wonderful if your interest is in something innocent, say kittens or coastal walks, but imagine if your interests are a little more serious. We saw in the UK how Facebook essentially split the country in half. Those of us on the Pro EU side & those on the Anti EU side. Each group were shown more & more information which reinforced their own view, while never being shown the other sides of the argument. This isn’t debate, it’s the reinforcement of divisions in society, the reinforcement of prejudices and without neutrality it has got way out of hand. I stopped using Facebook shortly after Jun 2016 after reading more & more about their algorithms & the filter bubbles they create.

As a web developer I can see the engineering thinking behind these algorithms. As feats of engineering they are superb & very accurate, however as someone who studied Web Development in a humanities department back in 2005 I can see that applying only engineering thinking to social platforms is a recipe for disaster. I believe that the referendum in the UK was extra devastating because of social media. Both sides, from what they could glean from their Facebook pages, thought they couldn’t lose. All of the information they received via Facebook reinforced their own views without ever challenging them. That is not a debate & with such algorithms it will only drive deeper divisions between every niche community in the world. With a referendum or a vote, chances are one side will always lose. It’s the whole point of putting things to a vote, but social media reinforced to both sides that their argument was beyond question to such an extent that the devastation was even greater for the losing side. And it spills out & has real world effects in society.

As I was saying earlier, I learned Web Development very early on. Back then it wasn’t really a thing & my degree route was actually called Web Content Management. We did web design & development, but we also did internet law, internet infrastructure, information architecture & information retrieval. We studied web accessibility for disabled users and a whole host of humanities focused modules alongside the technical modules. This gave me a great oversight of the internet, not just from an engineering standpoint but also that of a user & society in general. Back then, you didn’t google for things, you searched. Youtube didn’t exist, bandwidth was expensive & videos online kept to a minimum. It was much easier to read genuine fresh content, to learn new things & discover new ideas & ways of thinking. Back then it was a neutral place. Discussions were done on IRC or over instant messaging clients. They didn’t take place in public. Tweets didn’t exist & certainly wouldn’t have been used as authoritative quotes in the media. News wasn’t broken, it was triple checked, confirmed, edited and then published. We didn’t use personal information, we used nicknames or handles. We didn’t share private or identifying information. The net was a better place.

If you wanted to publish ideas, you first had to learn a bit about the internet, almost like getting a license to drive. We had netiquette (if you used ALL CAPS you where very angry). If you wanted to write to your MP, you had to write or email, not just shout abuse at them on twitter.

The internet will always have bias as long as engineers are programming the algorithms, but any tailoring based on your own interests introduces another layer of bias which is not healthy. If you think of a traditional library such as a university library, you would go to the shelves housing the subject you where interested in & every single book on those shelves would carry equal weight. Your selection would be based on reviewing a sample of books & choosing the most relevant. Search engines have taken this away from information retrieval as searches are first skewed by paid advertising, then by algorithms & finally by a users search profile. If you are constantly being shown things you are familiar with and never any variation, you will never develop a rounded knowledge of any subject. Imagine walking into a library & there being salesman pushing their books at you, shouting for your attention, it just wouldn’t happen.

I fear for the future of the internet if more people move towards these major tech players. The underlying technology of the internet will probably remain neutral, but if all the portals people use to access the internet are controlled by the likes of Facebook & Google, people will only ever be exposed to the content that is deemed fit. This could lead to major headaches for all democracies. Online electioneering is already beginning, the billionaires are bankrolling the politicians & secretly funding campaigns. They are creating misinformation & fake news is now a thing. They are mining vast quantities of data from social media & targeting users in extremely precise ways online. This funding is known as dark money & as it’s impossible to keep a track of online ad spending it introduces the ability to win elections by buying influence with unlimited spending. All of this information is ours to give, and modern web users give it freely. That needs to change. Consider your privacy, do you want pictures of your children appearing in advertising because in the terms & conditions you agreed to it states that all content becomes the property of Facebook? I know I wouldn’t!

So consider your web usage. If a website requires you to sign-up to browse, look for another service. Try some of the different search engines, they may be slightly less convenient, but your privacy is worth much more to you. If you use a Gmail or Hotmail account, remember that your emails are being scanned & used to cater your search results. Always log out of social media & google when not using them. Consider a service such as Proton mail or self hosted email. Don’t put your most intimate details onto Facebook & twitter. The moment you upload that content you lose control of it. Remember, these services make money from your clicks, they are designed to hold your attention and keep you on their websites. Be careful what you click ‘like’ on. Don’t help them market to you.

Install ghostery to stop these companies tracking your movements around the internet. Don’t rely on Facebook & Twiter for all of your news and facts. Anything that uses an algorithm will never give you balance & will only divide people further.

I intend to write more on this subject. I’ll address different areas one at a time, but hopefully this post will at least get you thinking. There is a world of wonderful & informative information out there on the Web, don’t let Google & Facebook hide it from you.

John Large

John Large - Uber Techie!

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