Mistaken Moral Equivalency

Former Google executive turned Obama administration deputy chief technology officer Andrew McLaughlin made some unfortunate comments at a law school technology conference last week equating private network management to government censorship as it is practiced in China.

By many accounts, President Obama’s visit to China was unimpressive. It apparently included a press conference at which no questions were allowed and government censorship of the president’s anti-censorship comments. On its heels, McLaughlin equated Chinese government censorship with network management by U.S. Internet service providers.

“If it bothers you that the China government does it, it should bother you when your cable company does it,” McLaughlin said. That line is wrong on at least two counts.

First, your cable company doesn’t do it. There have been two cases in which ISPs interfered with traffic in ways that are generally regarded as wrongful.  Comcast slowed down BitTorrent file sharing traffic in some places for a period of time, did a poor job of disclosing it, and relented when the practice came to light. (People who don’t know the facts will argue that the FCC stepped in, but market pressures had solved the problem before the FCC did anything.) The second was a 2005 case in which a North Carolina phone company/ISP called Madison River Communications allegedly blocked Vonage VoIP traffic.

In neither of these anecdotes did the ISP degrade Internet traffic because of its content—because of the information any person was trying to communicate to another. Comcast was trying to make sure that its customers could get access to the Internet despite some bandwidth hogs on its network. Madison River was apparently trying to keep people using its telephone lines rather than making Internet phone calls. That’s a market no-no, but not censorship.

Second, if the latter were happening, Chinese government censorship and corporate censorship would have no moral equivalency. In a free country, the manager of a private network can say to customers, “You may not transmit certain messages over our network.” People who don’t like that contract term can go to other networks, and they surely would. (Tim Lee’s paper, The Durable Internet: Preserving Network Neutrality Without Regulation, shows that ownership of networks and platforms does not equate to control of their content.)

When the government of China forces networks and platforms to remove content that it doesn’t like, that demand comes ultimately from the end of a gun. Governments like China’s imprison and kill their people for expressing disfavored views and for organizing to live freer lives. This has no relationship to cable companies’ network management practices, even when these ISPs deviate from consumer demand.

McLaughlin is a professional colleague who has my esteem. I defended Google’s involvement in the Chinese market during his tenure there. But if he lacks grounding in the fundamentals of freedom—thinking that private U.S. ISPs and the Chinese government are part of some undifferentiated mass of authority—I relish the chance to differ with him.