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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.