You may have heard that something called “Net Neutrality” was recently repealed by the Federal Communications Commission. What does that even mean? Why does it matter? Will it really affect me? Let’s break it down.
The internet is like a series of tubes, according to the late senator Ted Stevens (R–Alaska). And, supposing that these tubes carry water like pipes, net neutrality is the idea that my water is as important as your water and nobody’s water gets to have priority over anyone else’s water. Got it?
Okay, forget tubes, but stay with me on pipes.
Think about your internet service provider (ISP). Whether it’s a phone carrier such as Verizon or AT&T, or a cable company, such as Comcast or Charter, you pay them to be connected to the wider internet. You might pay them a little or a lot, based in part on the size of the pipe they’re connecting you with. A wide pipe can carry more data than a narrow one. But here’s the thing: Your ISP doesn’t care what data is going through your pipe. Whether it’s Netflix or HBO GO, email or Pinterest or YouTube, it’s just data in the pipe like any other data. That’s Net Neutrality.
Net neutrality: all data is created equal.
Think of our antitrust laws. They were created to prevent monopolies from dominating industries, price-gouging consumers, and preventing small players from entering the market. Net Neutrality is just like antitrust protection, except for your access to the world wide web.
Internet service providers have been pushing to repeal Net Neutrality for years. Now Congress has repealed it. So now, what’s likely to happen next as a result?
Let’s say you get your Internet through Comcast. Like any other company, Comcast wants to make money. They reach out to HBO and say something like, “That’s a nice streaming video service you got there. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.” Next thing you know, HBO is paying Comcast in something akin to a protection racket. As long as they pay, their video services gets prioritized–delivered extra quick–as opposed to other data in your pipe. When you try to watch Netflix, the video is choppy, lots of buffering, virtually unwatchable. But HBO Go is smooth as silk. So which do you watch? Obviously HBO, and you ditch Netflix, stop paying for it. With Net Neutrality revoked, corporations can buy their fast lane access and, even if their service isn’t better, they can choke off competitors. And it is now totally legal.
But it gets even worse when you think of free enterprise and new market players. Imagine that I created a new startup video streaming service in competition with Netflix and HBO Go. Let’s say mine is way better and faster, a really innovative approach. But, I’m dead in the water before I even can start. I don’t have the deep pockets to pay to prioritize my data. Remember, in the free market, the basis of the American economy, competition is good. It means my technology will spur these big organizations to keep up. Maybe they’d become better on their own, or maybe they’d license or acquire my technology. However, with Net Neutrality revoked, now I can’t even pay to get in the game, so they don’t have to worry about competition, and have no reason to improve. Talk about stifling innovation.
And it doesn’t just affect tech companies. Without Net Neutrality, small businesses may start having a harder time reaching their clients, because their websites will be hard for consumers to find or load. Small startups won’t be able to pay what it takes to be “searchable”. In the past 15 years, early stage companies with small budgets have been able to use social media and digital marketing to compete. This no longer is a guaranteed option with the repeal of Net Neutrality.
Now imagine that your ISP blocks certain content entirely. Without Net Neutrality, they can, and they don’t have to have a reason. A political ISP could block certain news sites from even showing up altogether if it doesn’t agree with their politics, whatever side they favor. Whether you’re finding a job, getting news or connecting with friends, using the internet is simply is a way of life. So, that’s fine – if your ISP blocks sites you care you about, you can just choose a different ISP. Hmm… the problem is that many Americans don’t have much choice. ISPs have a near monopoly in any given market. Thirty-seven percent of us have only two broadband ISPs to choose from. And 28% of us have only one choice. The internet has become a mandatory utility like water and electricity, except the repeal of Net Neutrality pretends it’s not.
And if you think ISPs won’t engage in these kinds of practices, think again. Why have they lobbied so hard to repeal Net Neutrality if they have no intention of violating these rules now they’re gone? In fact, history shows they’ve tried doing it in the past, but were stopped by Net Neutrality protections. Just this year, AT&T was caught limiting access to FaceTime, making it available only to users who’d paid for special shared data plans. Verizon began practices which it called “network testing” that noticeably slowed access to Netflix and YouTube. It has since begun plans to throttle access to all streaming video unless users upgrade to a more expensive plan.
Well, it’s done. Net Neutrality has been repealed, but there are many lawsuits ahead, including those coming from consumer groups and several state attorneys general. Meanwhile, it looks like we’re going to see what giant telecom and cable companies do when left to their own devices.