One Last Time

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.

Happy holidays.

(P.S. I promise I’m an idealist)


  1. Mike Smith

    December 16, 2016 @ 5:21 pm


    Hi Duncan! I’m making one last pass through our blogs, and I was happy to find yours. I agree with you that this is one of the things affecting Free Basics. Another probable argument is a fear of the slippery slope. Yes, some individuals without access to the Internet now get it (making them better off), but it is filtered access. Will Facebook work to move these individuals to less filtered access over time. If not (or they don’t present some plan), then the long-term prospects for these individuals are bad. The long-term outlook trumps the short-term gain. You may not agree with the evaluation at the end (and I’m not sure I do), but it’s another argument.

    In any case, thank you so much for being a part of our merry, little class! It was fantastic getting to know you and hearing your thoughts about where the Internet is going. I hope we run into each other around campus in 2017!

  2. Jim Waldo

    December 19, 2016 @ 2:37 am


    The one problem I have with the Internet Basics is that I’m not sure how Facebook can provide internet to only a few parts of the Internet without first supplying access to all of the Internet and then restricting that access. I think the negative reaction is that it is more expensive (in time, effort, or money) to provide the restricted access than it is to provide the unrestricted. So why doesn’t Facebook just provide the cheaper, unlimited access?

    Of course, Facebook would like the extra customers, so they do get some payback. And I agree that some access is better than no access. I even think that people, being the enterprising sorts that they are, would find a way around the limitations imposed by the Basic plan; this was done with early Internet providers like AOL that gave users a portion of the Internet (but users found a way around those limits).

    Thanks so much for your strong voice and participation in the seminar. It was great getting to know you, and I hope to see you next semester, even if it is just for a chat or coffee. Have a great break, and stay in touch.

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