Fate, Time, and Net Neutrality

Published on 21 JUN 2019 by Joe

When I interviewed Gav for our podcast, there was one response he gave that I wish I followed up on but did not. We were talking about governance and the fact that in nation states, people are affected by nations for which they don’t participate in the governance process. For example, I live in Germany so am affected by their governance decisions, but I don’t have any voice in the governance process.

So I mentioned that basically everyone on earth is affected by the internet, and how do you protect the rights of those who don’t have a voice in its governance. And Gav said,

I absolutely refute the view that blockchains are some sort of public service.[1]

This was interesting to me because net neutrality (not specifically blockchains, but Web 3 shares a lot of the same goals) is usually framed around the assertion that the internet is a public good, and therefor ISPs should not be able to limit access to information based on their judgments of the information or the recipient.

I remember back in 2013-ish when net neutrality was a big issue in the US. Despite the fact that being anti-neutrality was socially considered as equivalent to being a flat-earther or climate-change-denier, something didn’t sit right with me. If one company puts a higher load on the infrastructure than another company, why can’t the infrastructure owner charge more for that?

Of course, the alternative - that a few corporations like Comcast and Verizon can control what internet we have access to - isn’t desirable. So we got net neutrality, but how neutral was it? The government still shut down dark web sites like the Silk Road and cut off Wikileaks from funding. It wasn’t a neutral web, it was just that the FBI got to choose what information is throttled and not the ISP. The legal idea of net neutrality actually concentrated power.[2]

And this discussion is completely America-centric. Legal neutrality always means you have to ask, legal where? Legal neutrality isn’t neutral at all if every country has its own definition of what information flies under neutrality.

Although, it turned out that the ISPs weren’t so much the problem. Based on Google’s and Facebook’s profiles of you[3], you will see different versions of the internet. So even if a legal jurisdiction says the internet is neutral, different people will see different information.

Web 3 technologies take the opposite stance: The protocols, not jurisdictions, must ensure neutrality. The protocols should provide guarantees, like:

  • If a message says it came from a specific origin, you can trust that it did come from that origin.
  • The information you receive is the information you requested.
  • No eavesdropper, including an ISP, can determine the origin, destination, or content of a message.

These guarantees sound simple but form the pillars of the open, public, censorship-resistant internet that net neutrality strives for. But they take it one step further: they make the internet borderless. Which effectively makes the internet its own jurisdiction.

There are a lot of arguments about whether blockchain protocols should include governance and what form it should take. I think that this side effect - the creation of a new jurisdiction untouchable by the geographic conception of law - is ultimately why successful protocols must include governance systems.

If the internet has any future as a borderless jurisdiction then it must have a way for participants to make changes. A truly neutral internet without governance is a fatalistic approach, as in, whatever happens in the future was bound to happen. It’s ironic that for how much people advocate trustlessness, those who are opposed to governance are effectively saying we should trust the people who make the trustless protocols.

Fatalism, which indeed “no philosopher of the first or second rank has defended … or been at great pains to attack,” has nevertheless had an astoundingly successful career in popular thinking throughout the centimes; “we do all have our fatalist moments,” as Ryle says, and the reason is that no other theory can lull so effectively any urge to act, any impulse to make a project, in short, any form of the I-will. … In our context, the interest of the proposition lies in the fact that it succeeds in totally abolishing the future tense by assimilating it to the past. What will or may be “was to be,” for “everything that will be, if it will actually be, cannot be conceived not to be.”

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

I think a lot of people confuse means and ends. That net neutrality is an end in itself. To me, ends don’t exist, we only have means.

Software changes because the world changes. Keeping the web neutral is more important than making it neutral, and without the means to enable a practopoietic system, we will end up exactly where we are today.

To make this a little more concrete, computers don’t really understand anything from the outside world, so humans need to design interfaces to get information from the outside world into computers. The things we want to represent and express in computers, and the way we want to interact with computers, changes over time. Systems that don’t adapt will be replaced with systems that do, whether they’re controlled by a state or corporation or not.

But what does any of this mean in practice? How do you govern an open, borderless system where all the messages are encrypted?

I think the only honest answer is that nobody knows the best way to do it, only that it must be done. Which, as a sort of meta-point, is why the system must be adaptive.

Decentralization, or even direct democracy, is a pipe dream. Votes never get 100% turnout. Power centralizes because few people are interested in effecting governance.

The most important aspect of governance is that the decision-making process is transparent and agreed upon in advance. That is, we agree what the rules are and can verify that the rules are followed. Even better, we can voluntarily enter and exit the system.

In practice, modern democracy has failed at all of these.

Computers, however, excel at following rules and are immune to concepts like bribery. That machines “don’t care” is what makes them simultaneously scary and useful as governance tools. You can also verify that a computer followed the right rules in computing a decision[4].

To realize a neutral internet, the most important feature is the ability to keep it neutral, not the ability to make it neutral in the first place. Fortunately, computers, by being able to follow rules so well, are actually the best tool we have for codifying governance processes for computer networks.

Notes

  1. It sounds a bit intense in this context, but it was appropriate in our discussion, and I’m not going to change it.
  2. I hate to conceed that Comcast’s customer service is better than anything else in the world, but you actually may have more power calling Comcast as a customer than calling the FBI and asking for a way to donate to Wikileaks.
  3. Even if you don’t have a profile on Google or Facebook, they have profiles on you, and almost every action you take on the internet eventually feeds into one of their subsidiary prediction markets.
  4. And if implemented correctly, even without knowing the inputs to the decision.