Next month, Amazon, Netflix, and dozens of other companies and organizations will host a “day of action” aimed at saving net neutrality as we know it. The Federal Communications Commission, meanwhile, is on the verge of revoking its own authority to enforce net neutrality rules, and the country’s biggest telecommunications companies are cheering along. The future of the internet is on the line here, but it’s easy to be cynical about the conflict: What does it matter which set of giant corporations controls the internet?
Under the current net neutrality rules, broadband providers like Comcast and Charter, and wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon, can’t block or slow down your access to lawful content, nor can they create so-called “fast lanes” for content providers who are will to pay extra. In other words, your internet provider can’t slow your Amazon Prime Video stream to a crawl so you’ll keep your Comcast cable plan, and your mobile carrier can’t stop you from using Microsoft’s Skype instead of your own Verizon cell phone minutes.
If the Trump administration gets its way and abolishes net neutrality, those broadband providers could privilege some content providers over others (for a price, of course). The broadband industry says it supports net neutrality in theory but opposes the FCC’s reclassification of internet providers as utility-like “Title II” providers, and that consumers have nothing to worry about. But it’s hard not to worry given that without Title II classification, the FCC wouldn’t actually be able to enforce its net neutrality rules. It might be less alarming if the internet were an level playing field with free and fair competition. But it’s not. At all.
If you want to search for anything online, you’ve got to go through Google or maybe Microsoft’s Bing. The updates your Facebook friends share are filtered through the company’s algorithms. The mobile apps you can find in your phone’s app store are selected by either Apple or Google. If you’re like most online shoppers, you’re mostly buying products sold by Amazon and its partners. Even with the current net neutrality laws there’s not enough competition—without them, there will be even less, which could stifle the growth and innovation that fuels the digital economy.
Fast lanes or other types of network discrimination could have a big impact on the countless independent websites and apps that already exist, many of which would have to cough up extra money to compete with the bigger competitors to reach audiences. Consider the examples of Netflix, Skype, and YouTube, all of which came of age during the mid-2000s when the FCC’s first net neutrality rules were in place. Had broadband providers been able to block videos streaming and internet-based phone calls in the early days, these companies may have seen their growth blocked by larger companies with deeper pockets. Instead, net neutrality rules allowed them to find their audiences and become the giants they are today, and without net neutrality, they could even potentially become the very start-up-killers that would’ve slowed or stopped their own earlier growth. Getting rid of net neutrality all but ensures that the next generation of internet companies won’t be able to compete with the internet giants.
The end of net neutrality could also have ranging implications for consumers. Amazon, Netflix, YouTube, and a handful of other services may dominate the online video market, but without net neutrality, broadband providers might try to make it more expensive to access popular streaming sites in an attempt to keep customers paying for expensive television packages. “[Net neutrality] protects consumers from having the cost of internet go up because they have to pay for fast lane tolls,” says Chris Lewis, vice president of the advocacy group Public Knowledge.
Lewis also points out that there are a few other consumer friendly protections in the FCC’s net neutrality rules. For example, the FCC rules require internet service providers to disclose information about the speed of their services, helping you find out whether you’re getting your money’s worth. They also force broadband providers to allow you to connect any device you like to your internet connection, so that your provider can’t force you to use a specific type of WiFi router, or tell you which Internet of Things gadgets you can or can’t use.
“The Internet is as awesome and diverse as it is thanks to the basic guiding principle of net neutrality,” says Evan Greer, co-founder of Fight for the Future, one of the main organizers of the net neutrality day of action, which will take place on July 12 and try to raise awareness about net neutrality across the web. “Getting rid of Title II would lead to even more centralization, handing more power to the largest Internet companies while stifling competition and innovation. In a time when there are too few companies with too much power – we need net neutrality now more than ever.”