Explaining Net Neutrality: Two people trying to get their message across to you

Imagine two people in front of you. They both have something to say to you. The first one speaks in a really clear, loud voice without muttering at all while the other guy speaks painfully slowly. So slowly, in fact, that you cannot help but to listen to the guy with the loud clear tone.

Maybe you are more interested in what the slow dude wants to say. He seems to have something interesting to share. However, the first guy always gets to speak first. Sometimes you try and at least hear the second guy out, but get frustrated because it is just so much easier to listen to the first.

It is quite a no-brainer to guess which one of the two has more power. But still the question remains: why does the other guy have to try so hard while reaching out for you seems so natural and effortless for the first one?

Well: before addressing you, both men have to walk through a special machine. While inside, they are given a choice: pay one million dollars or we reduce the speed in which you speak the second you get out of this machine.

Without the machine, both men with their messages would be treated as equals before you. You could choose to listen to one and ignore the other, but it would be your decision to decide which one has a more interesting message to deliver.

But you don’t get to make those decisions anymore. The machine does that for you.

The two men don’t like this either. But they have no choice but to obey. And thus the one with more money always gets to you first.

This parable is the Net Neutrality debate in a nutshell. The two men represent content providers, or simply anything you want to watch, read or play in the Internet. The machine is your service provider, the one you pay for your Internet connection. Obviously, your hard-earned money is not enough for the service provider. If things start working the way they want them to, they can charge extra money from the parties who want to offer you their content or services online, be it Netflix, Spotify or worse still, a much smaller actor of whom you’ve never even heard of – and probably never will because their services will work so much slower that they’ll never make it in the market run by these media giants. Simply put, the ones who pay the service providers more money get to give you their stuff fast, while the ones who don’t… well, you’ll notice that their websites suddenly start working very slowly.

But you’ve paid for your Internet, so surely you as a customer have the right to choose which content you want to use with your high speed connection without delays or slowing down? The service providers don’t think so. They want to decide for you. Because they want an internet where the ones who have the most dough get to speak first.

Politically speaking: the Internet is one of the only places where everyone, at least theoretically speaking, has equal chances of getting their voices heard. If net neutrality disappears, the Internet will become a playground for only the big players, chosen by the telecommunications company people in black suits based on how much they are able to pay. The telecommunications companies, i.e. the machine between you and the two men, would become less “service providers” and more like a mafia controlling what part of the content you’ve requested gets to you fast and what does not.

Explaining NSA Surveillance: A Creepy Dude Watching Your Every Move

There’s a creepy dude who is strangely interested in everything you do, be it the things you do out in the open or really personal things you would rather not share with just anyone.

You’ve never met the guy. You don’t know anything about him. So how does he know so much about you?

The answer: he reads all your text messages, emails, browses through your pictures, checks whether you’re using GPS to be able to tell where you are or were at any given moment. He sees everything in your Facebook’s inbox and everything you ever wrote in your Google searches.

Naturally, you have never given the guy your consent to go through all your stuff. It’s private, for Christ’s sakes. He doesn’t care. He does it anyway, without telling you. And there is nothing you can do to prevent it.

To put it mildly then, the guy is a horrific stalker.

Even creepier is the fact that you have no idea what he’s using all this information for. Perhaps he’s just storing it for later use. Perhaps he’s never going to use it. Perhaps he’s more interested in stalking other people instead of you. But there’s still a strange feeling in your gut because you simply don’t know.

All this makes you feel angry, exposed and violated. “To hell with this guy”, you say to yourself. “I’m going to sue him.”

Now this is the point where it gets truly kafkaesque. You’re being told that there is no way to sue the man. He works for the government. You’re explained that what the guy does with your information is quite simply none of your business. The decision to stalk you 24/7 was made behind closed doors by some people and they all agreed that it was for the best and also that it was better if you did not know about it.

You’re growing increasingly paranoid. You’re pretty sure you’re being followed when you drive to work the next morning.

You could, theoretically speaking, simply having your more personal conversations only when you meet your friends in person and use your smartphone and laptop in a less carefree way than before. However, the stalker guy is quite clever: he can make a thousand assumptions about you even if with very little information. You still have your phone with you, so he knows exactly where you were at 7pm last Wednesday. Your friend, who you were hanging out with has been talking to you on the phone and online for quite many times, so the creepy dude knows you two are connected. And since the friend in question was there that day too, it is quite easy for the creep to connect the dots and realise you two were probably together. And since your friend texted you and discussed your lack of sex life and painful haemorrhoids, the creepy dude now knows about these things in detail, too.

And so the question goes: do you want the stalker dude to be able to keep on doing whatever he does for the rest of your earthly existence?

Snowden & The Issue of Making Digital Human Rights Issues Mainstream

In April 2015, comedian John Oliver travelled to Russia to interview Edward Snowden. What followed was an interesting discussion between the two about why regular people do not seem to give a damn about the truly frightening issues of citizen surveillance that Snowden revealed to the world – dooming himself to a lifetime of exile in the process.

Quite cleverly, Oliver asked whether the real issue was that the revelations were simply communicated in a manner that did not really resonate with your common John Doe. To elaborate, perhaps the biggest reason why things have largely stayed the same is that instead of falling into the trap of using technical jargon, the actions of NSA should be explained using real-life examples that anyone can relate with.

Oliver’s solution was to talk about an image of his penis.

Now let me take a moment to elaborate on why this was immensely important.

“If I took a picture of my dick, could the government see it?”

The silly question forced Snowden to explain the various technologies the NSA uses for surveillance in a way that anyone could not only understand them, but through humour, grasp the idea that this was something most everyone should be concerned about.

What Oliver’s interview highlighted was that it is often simply not enough to have the information available. It has to be presented in a form that makes people realise they should care.

For us academics, it is oftentimes difficult to phrase our ideas in a way that has true potential (or even an audience at all) outside the very narrow scholarly circles. Now listen, I enjoy intelligent wankery as much as the next guy but the fact of the matter is that such approach dramatically narrows down your audience. And no, I don’t believe that the only other option is to “dumb down” the message. The situation is simply that we need to pull our heads off our asses when discussing the issues of privacy and digital human rights.

The problem persists even in Citizen Four, the 2014 Oscar-winning documentary about Snowden. The movie plays like a technology conspiracy thriller (it even ends with a cliffhanger) that is exciting and troubling, but hardly addresses the question “what does this mean to each and every one of us” in a very concrete fashion. Again, this is clearly a movie that seeks to address the intelligentsia and thus mainly deals with the government vs. Snowden & his allies part of the story.

So what should we do?

The academic circles aren’t very good at selling their ideas to a wider audience, but you know who are?

The marketing people.

Yes, the guys and girls you’ve come to know from Mad Men who make a living influencing your purchasing decisions day in, day out. But it’s not just about being the evil advocates of corporate capitalism. The role of a marketer in any given project comes down to making the audience care about an idea. And as we’ve so blatantly had to witness with the Snowden case, what often matters most in terms of success is not the general importance of the idea, but the way it is presented so that it sticks and influences action.

In 2007, Dan & Chip Heath wrote a book called “Made to Stick”, still a classic in advertising and communications circles. The premise: to answer the question why some ideas spread like flu while others are forever forgotten. In his interview, Oliver seems to have done exactly what the Heath brothers suggest: for them, a message that will stick is first and foremost simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and story-driven.

Perhaps, judged by Heath brothers’ arguments, Snowden would have greatly benefitted from having a marketing team. Despite the global importance of his message, it seems to not have stuck with the general public. Heath brothers make an argument that in trying to communicate ideas, we get easily stuck with what is known as “the curse of knowledge”. What that means is simply that when we speak about most anything, we often have a vast amount information around the topic that we ourselves take for granted. Thus, the message might miss its target gloriously.

For me it seems that this has largely been the problem with the Snowden case — even the word “surveillance program” probably makes a large portion of the audience shiver spontaneously. We are therefore faced with a great challenge in making messages such as this heard. In Citizenfour, Snowden himself argues that his role as a whistleblower is to simply release the information and then the public itself has the power to decide what to do with it. While that may be a reasonable enough approach, the statement does not take into account the vast differences in education and media literacy.

In the following two posts, I will attempt to illuminate two ongoing debates inspired by the methods in Made to Stick. The first on being the Snowden scandal and the other one the recent debate around net neutrality. These two posts are first and foremost examples, by no means definitive and quite probably overshadowed by my own lack of deeper technical knowledge.

Above all, one should see these three posts as a call for action.

We cannot afford to continue having debates as important as these in the very narrow circles.

Change is only possible when we reach the masses.

Let’s start making things stick!