If you care about open access, you should care about net neutrality. There are obvious reasons why: After all, there’s no point in putting your preprints online if potential readers can’t afford to connect to your site. Pricing the web up means moving it out of the hands of those who need it most. It hinders the free flow of information and works against an informed citizenry. But there is another, subtler danger that comes from ending net neutrality: losing not only access to information, but the habit and expectation of access. A good example of this can be seen in the case of Papua New Guinea, where people have access to more and more information, but might never learn that they could look for it.
As an anthropologist, I’ve been going back and forth to Papua New Guinea (PNG) since 1998. PNG is the size of France and has a population of around 8 million people (that’s almost twice the population of New Zealand). So it’s not a small coral atoll somewhere. It’s a large, regionally important country, as well as a classical location for anthropological work, from Margaret Mead to Marilyn Strathern.
Unfortunately, Papua New Guineans have not received the education system they deserve. Universities struggle to stay open. The few museums in the country are underfunded and underappreciated. There are few libraries. While there are many Christian bookstores, there are few secular ones. Since much of the country is tropical, books simply don’t last as long as they do in colder climates. Today, sadly, you can grow up in Papua New Guinea without any real knowledge of its past or the great cultural achievements of its many civilizations. Many young Papua New Guineans growing up today aspire merely to become Australian, because they can’t have pride in a past they have never heard of.
Most of PNG’s cultural patrimony, therefore, lies outside the country. And PNG experts have worked hard to make our work about the country available online. The Australian National University has put over 300 books online open access, most of them about PNG. The University of San Diego has digitized and freed patrol reports for the country. In a country with a short written history, these colonial reports are often the best way for Papua New Guineans to access the past. UCSD also has 54 theses on highlands PNG open and available. And this is really just the tip of the iceberg of the PNG material. And of course the Internet had content that is not about PNG that Papua New Guineans would love to know about. Free music, movies, news, novels, world history — the world is literally at the fingertips of people. If they have connectivity.
PNG’s telecom laws were liberalized in 2007 (iirc), and in the course of a decade the country has gone from almost no connectivity to a world where almost everyone has a mobile phone. When I first visited Papua New Guinea, it was always exciting for us when yesterday’s newspapers arrived. There were just a few land lines out of the valley where I lived — and I was living new a mine, a development enclave. I had it much better than most people. The growth of mobile telephony and Internet access has transformed the country.
We PNG researchers have done our best to get what we know back into the country. There are still lots of things keeping Papua New Guineans from accessing all this freed content, of course. Literacy levels are too low to read a Ph.D. thesis (and to be fair the same thing is true in the US!). Reception and network coverage are major issues as well. And of course even if you wanted to read War and Peace in Ambunti, trying to do it on a tiny mobile screen is not easy. Education, signal, and affordances disincentivize digital learning in PNG.
But there is something else that keeps people from accessing this information: Not only difficulties accessing knowledge, but no expectations or habits of searching for access. Digicel, perhaps PNG’s most popular mobile phone company, allows users to use Facebook for free, but charges them for other data. There are upsides to this policy: Free social networking for a country where many people have little access to cash, the creation of an active civili society online, and much else. But there is a danger here as well: That Papua New Guineans learn that Facebook just is the Internet.
I fear that most Papua New Guineans are learning that the only thing you can do with a phone is use Facebook. To me, it’s a social network run by a company, but it’s not The Internet. To me The Internet includes Wikipedia, Khan Academy, Project Gutenberg, the BBC, and much else. But that is because I grew up with all you can eat bandwidth and a web browser with a customizable home page. It takes a lot of digging and a lot of money to access these sites in PNG. And worse, you might not even think to look for hem at all. There is a danger that young Papua New Guineans today will think of Facebook as a place to talk to friends, not to think of the Internet as a place to learn.
This doesn’t just give Facebook a ridiculous competitive advantage in PNG. It doesn’t just create consumers of information rather than creators. It limits peoples curiosity about the world. It fails to give them an understanding of the technology they are using. And as for what Facebook is doing with all the personal information it is gathering from Papua New Guineans… I don’t even want to think about it.
It would be too strong to say that PNG is a nation captive to Facebook, and it’s hard to say ‘no’ to free services for the grassroots. I’m not even against liberalizing telecom law in PNG — that had good effects. But hidden within this gift is a way of accessing information which limits not just what people can see, but what they can imagine they can see.
None of the theses, patrol reports, books, historical photographs, scanned newspapers — none of Papua New Guinea’s patrimony is available on Facebook. And the generation of Papua New Guineans who grow up using just Facebook will never think to look for that patrimony elsewhere. They won’t even know it exists. Or that they could look for it. Sadly, the great civilizational achievements of Papua New Guinea — which should be a source of pride for the country — will remain the purview of non-Papua New Guinean experts, no matter how hard we try to repatriate it.
It is not crazy to imagine ComCast partnering with Fox News to make Fox media content free to all Internet users, while readers of NPR must pay more. It’s also not crazy to imagine Time Warner partnering with the New York Times for free and charging extra for Breitbart. Net neutrality is not a partisan issue — it’s a democratic one.
Anthropologists of previous generations went to Papua New Guinea seeking humanity’s ‘earliest stages’ — ‘they’ were the relics of ‘our’ evolutionary past. Today, anthropologists who study Papua New Guinea go there to learn about ‘our’ future. Papua New Guinea’s experience with Facebook demonstrates the drawbacks to allowing service providers to privilege some Internet traffic over others. Even when the short-term benefits of free service seem like a good idea, the long-term costs are bad for people — and bad for democracy.