The New Paranoid style in American politics

After Net Neutrality

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Analysis The most interesting thing to emerge from the so-called 'Net Neutrality' bid had nothing to do with telecomms technology or policy. It's the startling and, at the same time, banal fact that paranoia has become the default flavour of politics on the net.

Phantoms fight phantoms, here. When the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote his famous 1964 essay for Harpers, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", he was inspired by the anti-Catholic fervour of the John Birch Society, and the anti-Communism of Senator McCarthy, which he saw embodied in Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign. These were old trends which were merely a reoccurrence.

"The paranoid is a double sufferer," wrote Hofstadter, "since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."

The "Net Neutrality" campaign - which created little excitement except on the outer fringes of the web - suggests that the left is now just as capable of being haunted by paranoid fantasies as the right.

What the internet has achieved, with its twisty maze of echo chambers all alike, is a rapid acceleration of this paranoid discourse, which expels nuanced and complex reasoning. Let's have a look what was being written this week, after the Senate failed to pass those "Neutrality" provisions, as these hundreds of Nation States of One broadcast their distress signals.

"This could mean the death of small internet businesses," wrote one MySpace blogger, quoted on CNET. A Republican opponent of the "Net Neutrality" legislation was graced, on the same site, with this riposte:

"Thanks, Jim, for being a fascist and promoting fascism in our country."

Now as someone employed by a small internet business, you must allow your writer some in-built biases. We take the possibility of service interruption very seriously - and we know all about talking potentially vindictive technology companies down from the tree. Our most serious interruption to date was caused by a censorware company, not a telco.

For a moment, let's dispose of the telco lobby's argument that the phantom of a "free market" means any new regulation is unnecessary. With spectacularly poor timing, AT&T launched its IPTV service this week, pricing it exactly in line with the cable operators it's competing with. And you thought competition is supposed to lower prices? The cable companies and IP giants are a duopoly - and they don't like competition. Verizon's patent infringement lawsuit against Vonage reminds us of that.

For the Neutralists, any suggestion of packet prioritization was interpreted as a speech issue - as censorship. But packet prioritization is very useful to the health of a data network. Neutralists assumed that because some services may have a higher priority, and travel faster - as video packets must - their favorite services would automatically travel slower. This is in spite of the recent doubling - at no extra cost - of internet bandwidth to Verizon fiber customers, who are the only US consumers to enjoy European-style broadband speeds today.

As for business - which you'll note conspicuously failed to join the campaign - the various attempts at drafting 'neutrality' legislation would have rendered today's Service Level Guarantees, the SGAs, or SLGs which businesses demand - illegal. IP expert Richard Bennett has offered a sensible technical antidote to both the free market utopians who came out to support the big telcos, and the hysterical Neutralists. Bennett argues that the net needs new policies because VoIP and Bittorrent simply saturate it further. You may disagree, but at least it's a rational argument.

Bennett identified four kinds of Neutralist, which is succinct enough to quote in full.

  • The end-to-end cargo cult, a group of people who understand virtually nothing about how the Internet is put together, but who nevertheless make their living explaining its implications. David Isenberg, David Weinberger, and friends.
  • Big Content companies who want free rein over facilities bought and paid for with other people's money. Google, Yahoo, Skype, et. al./
  • Political bloggers desperate to win a significant victory in order to get their consulting rates up: Kos, Armstrong, Stoller, Kelly.
  • Bewildered PACs afraid changes in the network will reduce its effectiveness as the ATM for fringe causes: Christian Coalition, Moveon.org, and their ilk.

Too few people have made the point that traffic shaping, along with the additional bandwidth, might make your VoIP packets go much faster.

This evening the Neutralists may be congratulating themselves on building a coalition. Or they may simply be waiting, like Chicken Little, for a piece of sky to fall. But an interesting parallel to this peculiar campaign was noticed recently by Alexander Cockburn, called The Left And The Blathersphere, which ran in the Nation and in his own weekly.

Rather than confront the underlying, and very real problems it seeks to redress, the blogging wing of the US left has instead created an alternative cyber-reality - populated by phantom demons, imaginary conspiracies, and bogeymen.

A blog is too much of a temptation not to use, Cockburn suggested.

"Talented people feel they have produce 400 words of commentary every day and you can see the lethal consequences on their minds and style, both of which turn rapidly to slush. They glance at the New York Times and rush to their laptops to rewrite what they just read," he wrote.

"Hawsers to reality soon fray and they float off , drifting zeppelins of inanity."

His conclusion?

"Welcome to blog world. They're loonies, beyond any sanction or reproof by reality."

And perhaps that's a clue. Just as Wikipedia allows teenagers and the unemployed to pretend that they're writing an encyclopedia, "activism" has also become a Role Playing Game. The net has become a proxy for politics, a simulacra, and this needs bogeymen. (I've performed the role of bogeyman myself, on several occasions.)

But such games are easier to play than fixing the problems that stoke the fears in the first place, such as balancing regulation and investment, or strengthening the laws that already exist to protect speech and prevent abuse.

However, citizens' time and energy are finite. The immediate consequence of the focus on "Neutrality" has been to permit the cable lobby to write the most anti-competitive bill for thirty years. Perhaps they knew the bloggers were only playing a game, and wouldn't think to look at the rest of the legislation.

The longer term consequences - where activism is simply an online game, an impotent exercise that fails to challenge entrenched interests, or improve the condition of the people - we can only guess at. ®

Related Links

Richard Hofstader - The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Alexander Cockburn - The Left And The Blathersphere

Richard Bennett

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