I come from the internet. For close to 25 years it’s been where I’ve gotten a lot of my entertainment and done a lot of my communicating. For about the past 10 years it’s where I’ve made my living. I have a vested personal interest in how it’s regulated, or isn’t. As a result, I pay attention whenever changes get proposed and have put a lot of thought into a given proposal’s potential effects.
Everybody is all freaked about ISPs no longer being subject to Title 2 regulation, which is being conflated with net neutrality. The popular belief seems to be that ISPs will start charging additional fees for accessing particular sites or services, or perhaps blocking access to them. That’s possible, but pretty unlikely. That’d just piss off individual consumers, and isn’t the most efficient way to collect cash. Despite those infographics being floated around, it wouldn’t make sense. Considering the current system of capped data plans, we’re actually not that far off from this when you think about the zero-rating some cellular providers have already been trying out.
It’s so much worse than that.
What’s FAR more likely is behavior similar to what we saw shortly before the current classification, and it’s much more insidious. The ISPs will go after content hosts to pay for prioritized data transmission. The highest profile case we saw before regulation was when Verizon tried to sell Netflix on a premium fee to get increased speed. When they went to the table, Verizon throttled Netflix traffic, which gave Netflix users a shite experience. They then claimed they hadn’t, which was absurd when Netflix came up with user connection speeds no one seemed to think they were monitoring for some reason, and could show that they’d dropped precipitously right around the time Verizon came knocking with their hands out.
The ISPs are already charging us to get on the information superhighway, and they’re regulating the speed at which we do it. They’re doing the same for content hosts (websites, etc.), making money at both ends. This is fair (though I might feel otherwise about the rates they charge, but that’s an unrelated argument). I’ve seen people arguing against net neutrality by comparing the series of tubes to a highway. It’s not a very good analogy for a number of reasons, but I’ll stick to it anyway. Prioritized traffic, they say, is equivalent to special fast lanes. That’s not exactly right, even in the context of this ugly simplification, as that traffic would be using the same roads. It’d be more like…
Imagine a world where a company could pay a fee to ignore speed limits. Walmart’s drivers could go as fast as they wanted, and anyone driving to Walmart could do the same. What do you think that would do to other retailers? How would they compete if they couldn’t afford to pay that fee? Sure, customers could still shop small, but it’d take longer for them to do and the stores would take longer to restock and react to customer demand.
The argument being made by folks like the head of the FCC says that the extra money spent by Walmart would be spent improving the roads and would benefit everyone. But, how does that help if the only exit without a traffic jam goes to the Walmart? Following that line of logic to its obvious conclusion, the big guys will continue to pay more to improve their users’ experiences as the smaller players will become less able to do so.
That’s what will almost assuredly happen without some sort of net neutrality legislation.
Then there’s the really ugly stuff that is pretty likely to occur.
They could decide to just not let you access information. If your car has a Verizon E-ZPass on it, you just couldn’t get off the road at AT&T’s exit (this analogy keeps getting worse, but I’m soldiering on!). Why should they provide you with a path to get to their competition? That’s not all that likely to happen, though, since 1) people would absolutely notice it and 2) they really don’t need to as most areas exist in an ISP monopoly or duopoly.
What is more likely is that they’ll hit it from the other side, slowing down sites that serve advertisements for their competition.
Tinfoil hat time? They’ll either block access, or just slow down traffic to a crawl, to any news site that publishes something negative about them or to individual stories about politicians or legislation they consider unfavorable. You think people are living in a bubble now? Imagine a world in which Breitbart cut a deal with Verizon, and theirs is the only “news” site that’ll play video without timing out for anyone using that ISP. That’s an absurd example, of course. MSNBC and Comcast share a parent company, however. It’d make absolutely perfect sense for them to “prioritize” traffic to the sites they own. Hope you Comcast customers like Rachel Maddow.
I won’t argue that Title 2 classification of ISPs is the way to deal with potential issues. What I will argue is that there needs to be regulation to ensure content is treated neutrally, wherever it comes from and wherever it’s going. Unless Congress is willing to write, and actually pass, legislation, Title 2 is our best option.