Net neutrality activists in the US. Photo: Getty
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Net neutrality shows that global cooperation is more important than national independence

Today is a net neutrality "day of action". But what is net neutrality, and what does it tell us about today's debates on Scottish independence and EU membership?

The Yes campaign for Scottish independence argues that Scottish people should take the chance to "decide our own destiny". This is a powerful idea and may even have turned the tide of the referendum. Those who advocate the UK leaving the EU deploy a variation on this argument. But both fail to fully understand the reality of self-determination in a globalised world.

The Yes campaign's premise that making more decisions at a national level will give a people more control over their destiny is flawed. The debate about net neutrality in America shows that, in future, a nation will only control its destiny by greater cooperation at the international level.

As John Oliver points out, "net neutrality" sounds like techno-jargon. Actually it's both simple and important. "Net neutrality" prevents Internet Service Providers (ISPs such as Verizon or Comcast in the US/BT or Sky in the UK) from charging content providers (such as Amazon or Netflix) extra for a faster service: It prevents a "two speed" Internet. If net neutrality is abandoned, as the Federal Communications Commission is considering, I might pay for "superfast" broadband but, if (for example) YouTube hasn't paid off their ISP, I won't be able to watch videos at that speed. ISPs will be able to effectively shut down sites that they don't like or which don't pay them enough.

This will make the Internet a closed market. Small start-ups can't pay extra for the fast lane so they will never be able to compete with established companies. Considering the Internet is driven by innovation (Facebook, Twitter and Google were all startups which replaced market leaders) this will be disastrous.

If this is all going on in America, why should it matter to the UK or Scotland? The EU supports net neutrality and, although the Conservatives back a two speed Internet, it is unlikely they will convince their coalition partners or find a way around EU law.

But huge numbers of Internet start-ups are born in America and, with California’s start-up community and a higher education system that attracts the most innovative students from the rest of the world, this will remain important.

This isn't just about cat videos and iTunes, it's about freedom of expression. Domestic law may say free expression is guaranteed but if I don't have the means to communicate then I don't have freedom of expression. Social media has changed the way we communicate. Politicians launch policy on Twitter and activists organise on Facebook. In 2012 a petition, promoted through Facebook, forced the coalition to abandon its plan to sell off swathes of national forest.

Currently, if (for example) Facebook was to delete pro independence content because Mark Zuckerberg is pro Union, it would still be easy to spread that content through Twitter, Reddit (who today are staging a "go slow" day to support net neutrality) or any of the many other sites which have been created since Facebook. The very fact that a competitor could replace them gives companies like Facebook a powerful reason to stay relevant, in part by not censoring content. If this motivation were removed the existing social media giants could exercise significant (unaccountable) control over politics in states far beyond America's borders.

The Obama Campaign, the Arab Spring and the Yes campaign (to name but a few) all relied significantly on individuals posting on social media. But what if Facebook and Twitter had failed in infancy because they could not afford speeds to match MySpace? Or ISPs just decided to promote Friendster instead?

The impact of net neutrality on Scots' freedom is equally significant whether or not they are part of the UK, just as the impact on Britons' would be the same (if not greater) were we to leave the EU.

National governments face becoming ever less relevant in the face of technology that transcends national borders. Too often debates about self-determination are defined by fear. We want to prevent others controlling us. But the reality of globalisation is that we will always be controlled unless we look outwards and project our own ideas on the international stage. Issues like net neutrality should be determined at an international level. But this will never happen if our debates remain insular.  Deciding our own destiny means finding a way to make the international level more democratic, not retreating into parochialism.

Scottish independence and our relationship with the EU are important debates. But they cannot be the only debates. A flag no longer guarantees self-determination. In the 21st Century, the only way to determine our own destiny is to work more closely with other nations.

Sam Fowles is a researcher in international law and politics at Queen Mary, University of London and blogs for the Huffington Post. He tweets @SamFowles

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide