“Net Neutrality” is the official name for an open internet. It means that all internet providers are to be treated the same regardless of whether you are a mom and pop company or a global behemoth. This week’s federal appeals court ruling pulled the plug on that concept.
The judges ruled that the Federal Communication Commission’s anti-discrimination rules were beyond the scope of its authority when it came to the internet. Congress gave the FCC authority to regulate common carriers, such as telecommunication companies, years ago. The FCC has always ruled that telephone networks cannot discriminate against consumers.
However, back in the Bush administration, the FCC was pressured by phone and cable lobbyists to categorize internet service providers differently. They are considered information services, which we now discover exempts them from common carrier rules. In hindsight, that was a big mistake.
For consumers the fallout could be huge. Fee-free services that we now take for granted may not work as well as before. Internet service providers could now charge fees for the privilege of “service in the fast lane” while the rest of us find we have been consigned to the tortoise lane.
If you’re a company that really needs a large amount of bandwidth to provide your services to the consumer in a timely fashion, fees will be going up. Think of companies such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Facebook and others that may have to pay more to ISPs in order to insure that their content remains accessible to their customers. We all know what that means–higher costs will be passed on to us in the form of higher charges for the same service.
Higher fees could also mean less innovation. Much of today’s new ideas are internet-related, simply because anyone with a good idea can try it out with little to no cost on the internet. There will be fewer garage start-ups by internet and web-enabled entrepreneurs. Small companies will find it harder to launch new services or compete with existing players that have the resources to pay and keep new players out.
But this is not only about the cost of your next viewing of “House of Cards” or “Orange is the New Black.” The internet has become society’s great equalizer. Anyone, regardless of background, income, or race can access the web for any number of reasons from education to entertainment. As ISPs begin to resemble cable companies, those who can pay will receive a far different level of service from those that can’t.
Society in general will suffer as yet another great divide will be created. Those who can pay will have access and those who don’t will see further stratification of society based on incomes and demographics. From the great equalizer, the internet could become the great divider over time.
There is still hope, however. Net neutrality could still survive. There is nothing in the court’s ruling that prevents the FCC from reversing their Bush-Era decision. They could simply change the definition and treat the internet providers as part of the telecommunications industry. Of course, that would put them at logger heads with a very powerful lobbying army and a number of politicians who are being paid to represent the interest of the ISPs. That’s where you come in. You could always call your elected official and express your opinion.