Mostly Switzerland, sometimes Sweden, once Kentucky at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, and now the Internet: these are the things that we most often think of when it comes to today’s word. Unfortunately, to many, neutrality is like art – people can’t truly identify it, but they claim to know it when they see it. So, what is neutrality and what does it actually mean?
In origin, the word neutrality comes from either the Middle French neutralite or the Medieval Latin neutralitatem, both of which are derived from the Latin stem-word for ‘neutral’’, neutralis. First arriving in English with the meaning of a true middle ground (not occupying one particular position or another), it was initially used by John Capgrave circa 1475 in his work, The Life of St. Katherine, writing: “Neutrality whom meant he here in this plurality But god, which ye singularly confess? Between these too is no naturality.”
Not long after its introduction, the word began to be used in a more applied sense, meaning that a specific entity had exercised a decision to be considered neutral, with William Caxton, in 1480’s The Chronicles of England, stating that: “The threefold governance in the church, that is to wit, of Eugenye, of the council, and of the neutrality.”
Finally, the definition with which most have come to associate the term – that of neutrality meaning impartiality or the absence of decided views – originated in the mid-1500s, with a prime usage coming from a translation of Girolamo Franchi de Conestaggio’s work, The Historie of the Uniting of the Kingdom of Portugall to the crowne of Castill (1600): “Those Readers that can judge of the truth of a history and the neutrality of the writer.”
With the recent ruling reversing so-called net neutrality in the United States, it is particularly this last definition that concerns most people. Though virtually all sides believe that the Internet should be a free and neutral place where all ideas are freely exchanged and accessible, few can seem to agree on the best way to achieve this result, especially after biased parties attempt to sway and muddle the issue. One side attempts to put the blame on Internet Service Providers (ISPs), believing that restrictive regulations and government oversight will solve the problem, without acknowledging the potential for increased costs and decreased competition. Conversely, the other side places blame on entities like web hosting firms and social media companies, which have previously been involved in high-profile attempts to limit free speech. However, this calls into question the limitations of free speech for corporate persons vs. individuals – another thorny issue. Given, this issue isn’t likely to be resolved anytime soon – and, even then, many people still won’t be satisfied with the result – but, much like the word itself, the answer to net neutrality will likely be where true neutrality has always been: somewhere in the middle.