"Cops Kill Kids" by Shawn Semmler (CC BY 2.0)

The shooting of Michael Brown and the aftermath of unrest in Ferguson raises a host of obvious ethical issues. One that isn’t so obvious is that it highlights the potential importance of knowing about net neutrality and algorithmic filtering. As Zeynup Terfecki has recently argued, what happened in Ferguson is a way to illustrate how net neutrality may be a human rights issue.

Let’s get clear about both terms first. “Net Neutrality” is the thesis that internet service providers should be neutral and enable access to all content and websites available on the internet. Furthermore, they should not favor, speed-up, block, or slow-down content and services from any website. Proponents of net neutrality hold that internet service providers should not be permitted to privilege content from websites and permit them to access a fast lane. Service providers also should not be allowed to intentionally slow down access to content from websites. If you agree with those sentiments, then you are a fan of net neutrality. If, however, you think a company like Verizon should be able to reach an agreement with ESPN and let ESPN deliver streaming content more quickly to Verizon users, then you favor what I will call a “Tiered Internet”. I won’t go into the pros and cons of net neutrality here, but if you’re interested this Wikipedia entry has a nice summary of the arguments for and against net neutrality.

Now let’s talk about algorithmic filtering. Algorithmic filtering is simply a process by which computer programs instruct computers (via an algorithm) to scan a large amount of information and pull out the bits they are interested in. It has a ton of very useful applications, but we’re interested in how it can be used in the internet service industry. Algorithmic filtering is one of the things that differentiates Facebook from Twitter. Facebook carefully curates what shows up in your feed based on a secret algorithm that (in theory) will prioritize content that Facebook wants you to see. Twitter doesn’t do this. With Twitter you see an unfiltered stream of the tweets of everyone you follow in chronological order.

Terfecki noticed something odd about this difference. Her Twitter feed was loaded with tweets about Ferguson, but when she switched over to Facebook she saw nothing. Facebook’s filtering had managed to bury anything about Ferguson. No one is accusing Facebook of intentionally suppressing Ferguson posts, it’s just that for some reason Facebook’s algorithm prioritized things in such a way that Ferguson posts (for Terfecki) didn’t make the cut. Ferguson posts likely made the cut for many people. So the lesson is, algorithmic filtering has the potential to unintentionally hide important stuff from you that you care deeply about, as it did in Terfecki’s case.

However, there is another important lesson to be learned here, and this is Terfecki’s primary point. What Terfecki wants us to do is take a step back and think carefully about net neutrality. Why? Because tiered internet uses algorithmic filtering. If Verizon wants to prioritize ESPN content, it needs to write a program that automatically filters through everything streaming across its networks, flag content coming from ESPN, and route it to the fast lane.

Why should this have us concerned? Because the way in which service providers could filter and prioritize content are only limited by a programmer’s imagination. Internet Service Providers could, for example, get into the PR business. Are you planning on running for Governor? Do you want that embarrassing story about you from your time at college to go away? Service providers could charge a premium to speed up content from some sites that sing your praises and slow down content from sites that talk about your college days (assuming those sites haven’t out-bid you), and voilà – the public is blissfully unaware of your past misdeeds.

The possibility of a truly informed citizenry would be further threatened if news media conglomerates got in the service provider game. News companies (with an agenda) could suppress stories from competing news organizations or media watch-dog websites and drastically shape the political message the country is getting. This is why we need to have a serious conversation about net neutrality. It’s not just about people who want to download large files without being throttled. It’s not just about delivering people free ESPN content quickly, if ESPN is willing to foot the bill. It is, as Terfecki notes, a human rights issue about ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to be a meaningful and well-informed participant in the political process.

Events like the Michael Brown shooting occurred all of the time in the pre-internet era, and the public was simply unaware of it. The internet changed that. Events that we should all be talking about are coming to light for everyone in the country at the same time almost the instant they happen, but we now have the technology to change that. We are rapidly approaching a future where the next Ferguson could happen, and a vast majority of us will be clueless.