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

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Byron burgers and bacon sandwiches: can any politician get away with eating on camera?

Memo to aspirant world leaders: eating in public is a political minefield.

Miliband’s sandwich. Cameron’s hot dog. Osborne’s burger. The other Miliband’s banana. As well as excellent names for up-and-coming indie bands, these are just a few examples of now infamous food faux pas committed by British politicians.

During his entire mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan refused to eat anything in public. When journalist Simon Hattenstone met him in his local curry house for the Guardian, the now-mayor didn’t eat a single bite despite “dish after dish” arriving at the table. Who can blame him? Though Ed Miliband had been pictured blunderingly eating a bacon sandwich an entire year earlier, the national furore around the incident had not yet died down. “He can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich,” Khan said of the photographer at the time.

Miliband’s bacon sandwich is now so infamous that I need offer no explanation for the event other than those words. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the photograph of Ed, lips curled and eyes rolling, as he tucks into that fateful sarnie. Yet politicians frequently bite off more than they can chew – why did Ed’s mishap inspire multiple headlines and an entire front page of The Sun?

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“The momentum got behind the bacon sandwich story because he was awkward, it showed him in a light which was true - he was an awkward candidate in that election,” says Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University. “He didn’t come across right.”

The photograph of Miliband fit neatly within a pre-existing image of the politician – that he was bumbling, incompetent, and unable to take control. Similarly, when David Cameron was pictured eating a hot dog with a knife and fork months later, the story reinforced popular notions of him as a posh, out-of-touch, champagne-swilling old Etonian. Though Oxford-educated, two-kitchen Miliband is nearly as privileged as Cameron, and Brexit-inducing Dave equally as incompetent as Ed, the pictures would not gain the same popularity in reverse. There are many, many less-than-flattering pictures of Cameron eating, but they didn’t fit into a workable narrative.

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No one, for example, focused on the price of Ed’s sandwich. Purchased at New Covenant Garden Market, it was undoubtedly more expensive than Greggs’ £1.75 bacon roll – but no one cared. When George Osborne was pictured eating an £8 Byron burger whilst cutting £11.5 million from the British budget, however, the picture spoke to many. The then-chancellor was forced to explain that “McDonalds doesn't deliver”, although, as it turned out, Byron didn’t either.

“The idea was to try and display him in a good light – here's a guy eating a burger just like everyone else. The only problem was it was a posh burger and of course he didn't look like everyone else because he was spending ten quid on a burger,” explains Baines.

But Dave, Ed, and George are just the latest in a long, long line of politicians who have been mocked for their eating habits. Across the ocean, Donald Trump has been lambasted for liking his steak well done, while in 1976, Gerald Ford was mocked after biting into the inedible corn husk of a tamale. Why then, do politicians not copy Khan, and avoid being pictured around food altogether?

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“Food connects everybody, food is essentially a connection to culture and the 'every person',” explains Baines. “[Nigel] Farage's appearance in the pub has definitely had a positive impact on how he's perceived by a big chunk of the working class electorate which is an important, sizeable group.” Though Cameron, too, has been pictured with pints, his undeniably weird grasp on the glass make the pictures seem inauthentic, compared to Farage whose pints are clearly at home in his hands. In America, Joe Biden managed to capture the same authenticity with an ice-cream cone.

“I think when it comes across badly is when it comes across as inauthentic,” says Baines. “If I were advising, I certainly wouldn't advise Theresa May to be seen in the pub having a pint, that would not shine with her particular character or style. But could Tim Farron come across better in that way? Possibly but it does have to be authentic.”

Food, then, can instantly make a politician seem in or out of touch. This is especially true when food connects to national identity. Tony Blair, for example, publicly claimed his favourite dish was fish and chips despite earlier saying it was fettuccine with olive oil, sundried tomatoes and capers. In the 1980s, Lord Mandelson allegedly mistook mushy peas for guacamole, insulting us all. In the States, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t been pictured with a hot dog, and there are entire articles dedicated to US politicians who eat pizza with a knife and fork. Again, the food fits a narrative – politicians out of touch with the common person.  

Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, no narrative is needed. We’d advise any candidate who seriously wants a shot in the 2017 General Election to not, under any circumstances, be pictured casually feeding a Solero to an unidentified young woman. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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