You sit down at your laptop one day and go to your favorite video streaming website. But instead of getting clips of hilarious cats, you get a message telling you that you have exceeded your streaming allowance for the month, unless you would you like to purchase some extra streaming credits.
This is a scenario that we were promised would never arise by the opponents of net neutrality, and yet it’s one of the first things that happened when the US legislature failed to protect the concept. Immediately, a legal wrangle opened between Netflix and Comcast. The Internet service provider attempted to negotiate rates with the movie streaming service due to the high volume of traffic it was being asked to handle.
Within a free market, Comcast’s position makes sense. There is a demand, they are the supplier, and they should be able to price their service accordingly. And Netflix can’t play the victim in this scenario; they are on the brink of becoming one of the largest media companies in the world, so surely they should contribute to the infrastructure that supports their business model. Right? Netflix decided to give into this notion, as they struck a deal in February that put an end to throttling of traffic generated by their site.
The argument of ISPs (and the companies behind them that provide infrastructure) is that they need to invest in order to provide the best possible service to their customers, and that certain websites make this more difficult. Therefore, in a free market, they should be able to charge those larger sites, or manage traffic accordingly.
But the Internet is more than Netflix, Facebook, Google and Amazon. The open web has operated on a free and equal access ever since Tim Berners-Lee developed HTML. It has fostered the open atmosphere that allowed bloggers and startups to thrive. The internet is a place where a good idea done well can take on the giants of any field. The end of net neutrality is not Goliath beating David; it is a sign outside saying “No Davids”.
An image created by Reddit user Quink displays in stark detail how the Internet might look for users in the future. It may seem far-fetched but it is actually based on common advertisements for cable packages. This is a model that already exists and there is no reason that it cannot be applied to Internet services.
Consider how this new Internet looks for you, if you run a business website or tech startup. Where do you fit in? Do users get free access to the service you provide? Or do they have to pay extra just for a pageload? What about personal sites and non-profits? Where there is competition, what happens when one company pays ISPs for preferential treatment?
The unknown elements of a post-neutral web are scary. Nobody can really predict how it will look. All we know for sure is that the level playing field of the early Internet will be gone, and this is as much a concern economically as it is politically. Business thrives on fair competition and a closed Internet is inherently unfair.
It’s not too late though. Just recently, the European Union have enshrined net neutrality into law. Lawmakers in the US may yet see the advantages of an open web and struggle to protect it. Not only does net neutrality strengthen constitutional ideals such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, but it’s good for business and essential for innovation. Let’s hope that our government make the right decision, and protect the free and open internet that we have come to cherish.