Network Equality, knowledge equality

Network Equality by Olivier Sylvain (summary; video presentation with Q&A) argues that U.S. internet policy and scholarship (focusing on the net neutrality debate):

has focused myopically on finding the right innovation balance […] at the expense of the core distributional objectives of communications law.

The paper concerns communications infrastructure policy and does not mention knowledge policy at all, but the first statement seems even more true of knowledge policy. The harms of exclusion and unequal access and potential of universality described by Sylvain ought also apply to knowledge. Unfortunately knowledge law (dominated by the extremely anti-equality “intellectual property” rubric) starts from a far worse place.

I hope that some policymakers and scholars take up Sylvain’s argumentation and apply it to knowledge policy and apply it globally. If there’s anything myopic about Network Equality it is its exclusive U.S. focus; if we accept Sylvain’s argument wholesale, what does it mean for communications policy in other jurisdictions as well as for international aid and policy? Of course distributional concerns are present in much argumentation for access to medicine and to some extent for open access to scientific publication and educational materials. But it’s rare for anyone to forcefully and directly make the case for including equality as a concern for knowledge policy (e.g., Copyright and Inequality) let alone the top concern, as Sylvain does regarding communications policy.

“IP scholars” might be irredeemable (though as I frequently hope, they could re-imagine themselves as commons scholars, with innovation policy scholarship as a halfway house) but perhaps some communications scholars advocates should make knowledge policy more central to their agendas. It’s long struck me that the nightmare scenario of many open internet advocates of net access being sold as access to individual properties which are impossible to compete against is coming true, but realized at the application layer and driven in part by copyright advantaging huge platforms and by a lack of commons-based competition for said platforms (outside of the encyclopedia category). Commons-favoring policy offers the most feasible and sustainable path toward fixing this.

Longer extract from the paper:

Under the view I propose here, the Internet is not simply a boutique curiosity with which engineers and computer scientists should be allowed to tinker. Nor is it simply thought of as an engine for economic growth for inventors and companies to exploit. The controlling view ought to be that broadband is more like electricity; it is an essential general use resource to which everyone should have the same or nearly the same access as a matter of course. The longstanding and uncontroversial central objective of communications law and policy – universality – should displace the singular preoccupation with innovation.

We might assume that this is nothing more than a question of semantics – that I employ the language of equality and integration, where the prevailing approach relies on tropes in economic and network theory. But that would misunderstand the point of this Article. The argument here for a reorientation towards network equality is that the prevailing approach has things backwards; universal and equal access to all Americans will yield promising social benefits for everyone, but especially the underserved. At least, I argue, the prevailing trickle-down theory overemphasizes the material benefits and consequences of broadband at the expense of the statutory and deontological reasons for integration and inclusion. Network equality matters, I argue, because it gives everyone an opportunity to engage (i.e., benefit from and to add to) in the dynamic opportunities online irrespective of who or where they are. It is a gateway to a vast world otherwise beyond their reach. State-of-the-art Internet connections would help them to redress structural inequities in the delivery of a range of other services.

The Internet should be seen as a transformative general use technology that could reverse historical and existing patterns of oppression, discrimination, bias, and harassment. The trickle-down theory purports to accomplish these ends through indirection. I argue, instead, that a policymaking approach that strives to network equality will more directly achieve universal deployment.