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.