W hy the end of net neutrality could kill new businesses
Chances are you’ve heard the rumblings about net neutrality lately, and how it’s being threatened. Chances are it’s not the first time, either. The struggle to maintain net neutrality is nothing new; major internet service providers (ISPs) and telecommunications companies like Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner, and Verizon have been lobbying to take it down for years.
What is new, is that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is actively considering rules that would give these companies exactly what they want – and that would be very, very bad.
What is net neutrality?
In short, net neutrality keeps internet providers from deciding what you get to see on the internet.
Still confused? In a (terrifying) Doctor Seuss-esque video, cartoonist Mark Fiore breaks the situation down:
Note that this video dates back to February – the last time net neutrality was under attack.
The story so far
The conversation about net neutrality – its future, its opponents, and what’s at stake – has been around for more than ten years. A major game changer occurred in 2002, when the FCC decided that internet service providers were fundamentally different from phone companies (which it has been regulating for 80 years). As a result, the FCC decided they wouldn’t regulate ISPs – and this is where a lot of folks get confused about net neutrality.
No government regulation: in a post-Snowden world, that doesn’t sound so bad, right? Not in this case.
Without regulation, internet service providers would be pretty much free to do as they pleased – like block you from accessing a part of the internet they don’t want you to access; a competitor, for example.
In 2007, Comcast ruffled a lot of feathers when it was caught throttling BitTorrent traffic, and once again, the net neutrality debate emerged into the spotlight.
In 2010, to combat instances such as this, the FCC created the following Open Internet rules:
1. Transparency: That all ISPs must transparently disclose to their subscribers and users all relevant information as to the policies that govern their network
2. No Blocking: That no legal content may be blocked
3. No Unreasonable Discrimination: That ISPs may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity.
The major ISPs, of course, weren’t pleased with this. Wearing their best PR faces while charging forth like so many Star Destroyers, Comcast and Verizon in particular have been fighting net neutrality every step of the way. In January of this year, Verizon took the FCC to court, arguing that the Open Internet rules contradicted the FCC’s own 2002 decision not to regulate ISPs.
Verizon won, and the Open Internet rules were mostly demolished – which puts us in the present predicament.
What’s happening now
Several weeks ago, the New York Times published a leaked document which showed new rules being considered by the FCC – and this is where it gets confusing (again).
With the Open Internet rules, it seemed like the FCC was on the side of the consumer. The leaked document, and its proposed rules, paint a very different portrait.
The new proposed rules would allow large entertainment companies (Disney, Netflix, etc) to pay service providers for faster traffic. The FCC’s PR response suggests that it’s not a big deal, and they’re just trying to create new rules in line with the January ruling. As just about everyone has noted, though, that doesn’t quite add up.
If you’re looking for a tangible example of this, you might recall when your Netflix streaming connection seemed to get terrible earlier in the year. You were not imagining this. Comcast put the clamp on Netflix until Netflix agreed to cough up money, so that its customers could enjoy a good connection through the ISP.
The FCC’s new proposal would make this a common practice, and the implications aren’t hard to see.
Why the end of net neutrality could kill new businesses
There are a lot of ways this could go, and the vast majority of them are really bad.
Small businesses wouldn’t just be forced to debate whether or not to pay Facebook for visibility of their status updates – they could be forced to pay their ISP massive sums of money to show their website to its customers at a reasonable speed. Big businesses might be able to do this, but most small businesses would be cut out of the game altogether.
Start-ups would be in a similar position. In a Slate article, Marvin Ammori writes:
“New sites will come along and be unable to compete with established giants. If we had had such discrimination a decade ago, we would still be using MySpace, not Facebook, because Facebook would have been unable to compete.”
In effect, considering how pivotal the internet has become, ISPs would become the gatekeepers of just about everything.
If that seems insane, and – well – evil, you’re not alone.
Just about every tech watchdog is up in arms, and the internet is rallying. But will it be enough?
What you can do
First, do your own reading on the topic of net neutrality. It’s an issue that demands engagement from the average person – not just the experts running in tech and legal circles. Talk with your friends, and do what you can in raising awareness on social media – even if it’s just sharing articles like this.
Some of the front-running pushes right now are for the FCC to:
- Scrap their current proposed rules
- Delay making any decisions until the best solution can be found
- Reclassify internet access under Title II of the Communications Act (not doing that in the first place got us into this mess).
May 15th is looking to be a rally point for this, so start reading up now.
A few resources:
- The Atlantic takes apart the situation in-depth in this editorial, and provides a plea for the FCC to alter its approach.
- This Reddit AMA thread with Marvin Ammori (quoted above) and several others at the forefront of the net neutrality battle is packed with clarifications and information about how you can help (write, call, sign, donate, etc).
- Save the Internet – a landing page with a number of calls-to-action, headed by one of the main folks in the AMA above.
More directly, you can help in the push to get the FCC to classify broadband access as a Title II telecommunications service, by:
- Calling the FCC
- Calling Congress
- Emailing FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler
- Taking your message directly to the FCC’s web site
- Joining the May 15th rally if you’re in the D.C. area
- Signing this petition
- Signing this one too
- Signing this one as well
To reiterate, this isn’t some empty, vapor campaign filled with feigned outrage. It’s the future of the internet, and if we don’t act, the internet will be going through a series of very damaging changes.