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

Photo: Getty
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Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders no longer sounds so outlandish

Both men have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack.

Unlike many of us, Bernie Sanders never doubted Jeremy Corbyn. The week before the general election, the independent US senator from Vermont was addressing a crowd of progressive voters in Brighton during a whirlwind tour of the UK. An audience member asked him what advice he might have for the leader of the Labour Party. “I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn needs my advice,” Sanders replied. “I think he’s doing quite well.”

The week after the election, a delighted Sanders invoked Corbyn’s election performance in a New York Times op-ed. “The British elections should be a lesson for the Democratic Party,” he wrote, urging the Democrats to stop holding on to an “overly cautious, centrist ideology” and explaining how “momentum shifted to Labour after it released a very progressive manifesto that generated much enthusiasm among young people and workers”.

Sanders and his growing movement in the United States offered more than mere rhetorical support for Corbyn.

With the help of former members of the senator’s presidential campaign team, Momentum – the grass-roots organisation set up to support and defend Corbyn in 2015 – ran 33 training sessions across the UK, preparing thousands of Labour activists.

Momentum’s national organiser Emma Rees says that the Sanders people made a “significant contribution” to the Labour campaign with their emphasis “on having empathetic conversations that focused on the issues the voter cared about, and actually trying to persuade voters on the doorstep rather than just collecting data”.

“In the final stage, I recruited a bunch of former Bernie volunteers from around [the United States] to . . . help get out a last [get out the vote] texting assignment,” recalls Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organising director for Sanders and spent the 2017 election campaign working with Momentum in the UK. “It was an amazing thing to see them volunteering . . . while we were all asleep the night before election day.”

Is it really surprising that Sanders supporters, thousands of miles away, would want to volunteer for Corbyn? Both men are mavericks; both have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack; both, in the words of Emma Rees, “have inspired tens of thousands of people to participate in the political process and to realise their collective power” and they want “to transform society in the interests of ordinary people”. Perhaps above all else, both men have proved that left populism can win millions of votes.

According to the latest polls, if another election were held in the UK tomorrow, Corbyn would be the winner. Sanders, however, has a much higher mountain to climb in the US and faces at least three obstacles that the “British Bernie” does not.

First, Sanders leads a growing grass-roots movement but does not have the support of a party machine and infrastructure.

Corbyn may have been a backbench rebel who voted against his party whip more than 500 times before becoming party leader, but he is a lifelong Labour member.

Sanders, on the other hand, is the longest-serving independent politician in US congressional history. He declared himself a Democrat in 2015 only in order to seek the party’s presidential nomination and promptly declared himself an independent again after he was defeated by Hillary Clinton last summer.

Such behaviour has allowed establishment Democrats to portray him (wrongly) as an opportunist, an interloper who is using the Democratic Party as a vehicle for his own benefit in a country where third-party candidacies cannot succeed.

Second, Sanders has to confront an even more hostile and sceptical media than Corbyn must. Under US law, Fox News is under no obligation to be “fair and balanced” towards Sanders – nor is CNN, for that matter.

Thanks to the UK rules on broadcaster impartiality, however, Corbyn was “able to speak directly to the voters who still get their news from TV instead of the internet”, Sandberg notes. “In contrast, Bernie was completely and totally shut out by broadcast media in the US, which considered his campaign totally irrelevant.”

Third, Sanders failed to connect with minority groups, and especially with African Americans, whereas black and Asian British voters flocked to Corbyn – a veteran campaigner for the anti-racism movement.

Two out of every three ethnic-minority voters voted Labour on 8 June. “Bernie would’ve won [the Democratic nomination] if he’d had a message that resonated with 50 per cent – just 50 per cent – of black voters, because Hillary got upwards of 90 per cent in many states,” the activist and journalist Naomi Klein, who is a supporter of both Sanders and Corbyn, told me in a recent interview for my al-Jazeera English show, UpFront, which will air later this month.

Nevertheless, she is confident that Sanders can learn lessons from his own campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination, and “build a winning coalition” next time which ties together the narratives of financial, racial and gender inequality.

Just as it was a mistake to write off Jeremy Corbyn, it would be wrong to dismiss Bernie Sanders.

Despite media bias, and even though he doesn’t have a party machine behind him, Sanders today is still the most popular politician in the United States. And so this may be only the beginning of a new, transatlantic partnership between the two self-declared socialists. Those of us on the left who grew up watching Reagan and Thatcher, then Clinton and Blair, then Bush and Blair, may wish to pinch ourselves to check we’re not dreaming.

“I think by 2021,” Sandberg says, “we may see Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders.”

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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