Beyond Open Access, Net Neutrality: Cultural Anthropology Takes Action

From the Series: Open Access

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In 2008, when my collaborators and I published “Anthropology of/in Circulation” in Cultural Anthropology (Kelty et al. 2008), we were excited by the ways in which the Internet could transform our discipline. Open-access scholarship, commons-based peer production, and alternative licensing all seemed to be (finally) coming to anthropology. And in the nine years since then, Cultural Anthropology has shown how open-access publishing can increase anthropology’s visibility and spawn a swarm of innovative experiments in online publication. Today, unfortunately, anthropology enters a new era with a new challenge: instead of building new forms on top of the Internet, we must now keep the Internet from being yanked out from under us by deregulation.

The free and open Internet that we take for granted is being threatened by President Trump's new commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), who wants to end net neutrality. Net neutrality is the principle that your Internet provider (cellphone or cable company) must send all of your Internet traffic to you and must send it at the same speed, regardless of the content of that traffic. If the FCC ends net neutrality, your Internet provider could slow down your Internet connection, ransoming it back to you at a higher price. It could also simply block websites and Twitter accounts altogether. Imagine a world where Rupert Murdoch partnered with Time Warner Cable to make Fox News free to all cable subscribers, but you had to pay extra to reach the New York Times website. This is not a hypothetical situation: Internet providers have a history of trying to violate net neutrality.

You might be saying: in an era when Philando Castile can be shot seven times and his killer can walk free, don’t we have bigger things to worry about than federal regulatory policy? Of course. But how did you hear about the Castile shooting? How did you watch Diamond Reynolds’s recording of her partner’s death? Without net neutrality, our ability to share information about the things that matter to us will be undermined. Whether it is Skyping with people in your field site or organizing an demonstration, net neutrality should matter to you: It's a metaissue that affects us all because it shapes the terrain on which we live our lives.

It would be easy to say that deregulating the Internet will lead to cheaper, better service. And of course, Trump’s head of the FCC would say that—he used to be a lawyer for Verizon. Neoliberalism is an overused word in anthropology today, but if there were ever an example of it, this is it. By now anthropologists understand all too well that the neoliberal impulse to deregulate is more likely to enrich large corporations than it is to help consumers. It is also easy to say, as some do, that America’s norms and institutional culture will prevent Internet providers from engaging in censorship if net neutrality is dismantled. But in Trump’s America, we would have to be fools to trust in norms and conventions that are being dismantled around us every day.

If you do not live in the United States, you may think the end of net neutrality will not affect you. But I don’t think this is true. Honestly: how has the world fared so far with a United States that drifts away from its traditional commitments? An America denied full and open access to information is a danger, not a boon, to the world. And the end of net neutrality is just part of a larger trend away from an open and free Internet. A 2016 Freedom House report found that Internet freedom around the world is declining. Some 66 percent of all Internet users live in countries where criticism of the government can be censored. And 27 percent of all Internet users live in countries where you can be arrested for liking the wrong content on Facebook. An America with a free Internet is still—for all our country's faults—a demonstration of the value of free and equal access to information. An America without net neutrality is a beacon of hope to governments that want to maintain their power by silencing their citizens. Thus, it is in everyone’s interest to get behind America’s fight for net neutrality.

Anthropologists, like scholars everywhere, are committed to the ideal that we have a right both to speak and to listen: to circulate anthropology, and to live in a world where we can hear our interlocutors speak back. All of the podcasting, blogging, and open-access content in the world will matter not one whit if the foundation they rest on—an open and free Internet—is taken away from us. There is no point in publishing open-access journals in a world where people are priced out of reading them. There is no point in organizing on Twitter if your hashtags can be blocked. For us in particular, then, net neutrality should matter.

What You Can Do

In the short term, the answer to this question is easy: the FCC is taking comments from the public about net neutrality until July 17. If enough of us write in support of net neutrality, the FCC has indicated it will take these comments seriously. So the first thing you can do is write to the FCC and tell them you support net neutrality. Educate yourself about the issue. Donate to one of the many groups that are organizing for net neutrality, such as Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, or Free Press.

If you are itching to do something immediately, then you are in luck: tomorrow, July 12, is an Internet-wide day of action to save net neutrality. If you run a website, you can add a few lines of code to join the protest, as Cultural Anthropology has. Visitors to the journal’s homepage will be greeted by a message inviting them to write to the FCC. Cultural Anthropology’s social media accounts will also display the circular “loading” animation that has become a symbol of the protest; you can download images to do the same. These steps are safe, simple, easy, and they will make a difference.

More broadly, anthropologists interested in open access now need to understand that the biggest threat to open scholarship no longer comes from big publishers “above” us in Internet infrastructure, but from companies “below” us who are threatening the system that open access runs on. The struggle to maintain net neutrality is just part of this much broader shift in the politics of open-access advocacy. Once, we worried about companies with names like Elsevier and Taylor & Francis. Now, we need to worry about companies with names like Comcast and AT&T.

The good news is that this is a winnable battle. Past attempts to destroy net neutrality have been beaten back, and I believe that we can be successful this time as well. In a world where so much seems to be going wrong and where we feel so powerless to stop it, I’m glad to know that this is one fight where involvement can make a real difference. Net neutrality should be an issue that all Americans, left and right, can get behind. For anthropologists—American or not—this issue should hit close to home. And for readers of Cultural Anthropology, net neutrality should be especially important, since a free and open Internet is the rock upon which our experiments are built.


Kelty, Christopher M., Michael M. J. Fischer, Alex “Rex” Golub, Jason Baird Jackson, Kimberly Christen, Michael F. Brown, and Tom Boellstorff. 2008. “Anthropology of/in Circulation: The Future of Open Access and Scholarly Societies.” Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 3: 559–88.