Hey everyone! My math final is over, so I’m finally going to wrap up the semester with one more blog post that should have been posted two weeks ago. This week’s topic was twofold and almost disjoint: the influence of the Internet on the US Presidential election and the Internet in developing countries. It was a fitting end to the semester: candy, a lively discussion, and plenty of good cheer to go around. That said, there were a few things said that really pushed my buttons.
If you haven’t heard about Free Basics, it’s a program Facebook was trying to institute in India that would have given limited Internet access to millions of Indians, particularly in rural areas. India soundly rejected it. Why you ask? Well, there were various logistical difficulties. For example, many of the people using it were people who had gone over their data limits, rather than the first-time Internet users Facebook was trying to reach. These are reasonable issues to be concerned about. However, some people seem to take issue with it on a philosophical, not just logistical, level They seem to be of the impression that because Facebook could not provide full Internet access, they should instead provide no Internet access.
The idea underlying this (to me cognitively jarring) statement I think is net neutrality. Everyone should have equal access to the Internet because the Internet’s nature is to be open, not restricted to the amount of money you have. I am totally on board with this. I get off the train when someone says that this means we should deny disadvantaged people wifi if we can’t give them the entire Internet. Restricted access to the Internet isn’t as good as full access to the Internet. You know what’s worse? No access to the Internet. People who use net neutrality, or any sort of equality argument to reject Free Basics, are actively working against their goal of a more egalitarian society. And in a world where technological divide may be the most important, that’s really bad.
I think what is going on here is something called the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics. If you’re not a hyperlink person, it’s the (fallacious) idea that by interacting with a situation, you become responsible for it. That even if you improve the situation, you become responsible for the fact that it’s not as good as it should be, even though you weren’t before (for example, Apple isn’t responsible for people starving in China. Then they open a factory there, employing people in poor conditions but still better than starving and now they’re the devil. They should definitely close the sweatshop). If you accept this argument, I can take that up with you later. For now, I’ll assume you agree with me that this seems pretty silly.
I think something like the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics is going on here. We can’t make their situation equal to ours, so we shouldn’t make it any better at all. This is, in my opinion, one of the ways that well-intentioned people end up doing harm. As they say in the hyperlink that you definitely followed: Almost no one is evil. Almost everything is broken.
(P.S. I promise I’m an idealist)