5 Freedoms That Just Died With Net Neutrality

Updated

It's all over. Today (Dec. 14), the FCC commissioners voted 3 to 2 to overturn Obama-era net neutrality regulations, which help maintain a free, open Internet. Now, internet service providers will be free to selectively block or slow down content from websites and services they don't like (or that don't pay them). They are only required by law to disclose such blockings or slowings.

Lead Image Credit: Steve Heap / ShutterstockLead Image Credit: Steve Heap / Shutterstock

Back in 2015, the FCC reclassified broadband ISPs as "common carriers," which placed them in the same category as land-line telephone providers and gave the government agency greater authority to police the activities of ISPs and make sure that broadband ISPs cannot discriminate for or against any type of traffic.  The vote today reversed that decision, putting broadband back into the "entertainment" category.  It also deliberately weakened the FCC's own regulatory powers, handing enforcement of many of the remaining rules to the FTC.
 
Consumers are about to be cast in "The Purge: Internet Anarchy," in which a small group of powerful executives decide what you can see, hear and read online. Anti net-neutrality Crusaders such as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon executive, claim that any kind of regulation stifles innovation. In November, Pai said the 2015 rule changes "depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation" and that, under this proposal, "the federal government will stop micromanaging the Internet."

But Pai's argument is operating on dial-up in a 5G world. The real innovation online doesn't come from ISPs, who have been providing consumers with plenty of bandwidth despite net neutrality rules, but from companies that use the internet to deliver information and services. Google and Netflix changed the world because they were able to reach billions of people without paying for an ISP protection racket.

If bandwidth providers start charging your internet-based company an access fee just to have your website appear to their customers, the next Google won't be able to get off the ground. Pai argues that, because ISPs didn't impose pay-to-play policies prior to the 2015 regulations, that they can be counted on to do the right thing now. That's like saying that we should close the local health department and fire all its inspectors since none of the restaurants has been caught spreading salmonella lately.

The real losers here aren't big corporations such as Microsoft or Google or small startups, but end users who will face restrictions on the content and services they can consume. Here are five freedoms that may have died, along with net neutrality.

1. Freedom of the Press

If you wanted to start an international media company 25 years ago, you couldn't do it on your own. The barriers to entry — getting access to a printing press and developing the complex infrastructure to distribute your work — were huge. With the open Internet, however, anyone can start a news site and publish articles or videos without worrying about whether people can read them.

Without net neutrality, ISPs can block or slow down news sites for any reason, be it commercial or ideological. For example, Comcast could block NYTimes.com or slow it to a crawl because the online newspaper published an op-ed in favor of net neutrality or even reported something negative about the company.

Optimum Online, which operates primarily in the New York area, could decide to block your access to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer online because that publication wouldn't pay a fee to be carried. If every ISP charges content providers fees for reaching its customers, many publishers will simply decide that certain markets aren't worth reaching. If you're running a local business in Illinois, you probably wouldn't pay the kickback to have your site appear to users in Texas.

The most important question raised by net neutrality is not "should the government regulate the Internet" but "should a dozen ISPs be allowed to control thousands of other companies?"

The most important question raised by net neutrality is not "should the government regulate the Internet" but "should a dozen ISPs be allowed to control thousands of other companies?"

2. Free and Fair Elections

The large ISPs already have a major influence on politics, with Verizon alone spending $53 million on campaign donations and lobbying between 2010 and 2014. However, without net neutrality, there's nothing to stop the ISPs from influencing elections even more directly. Your broadband provider could block the website of one candidate while speeding up that of another.

An ISP could even censor the sites for political action committees that support a viewpoint or candidate it opposes. Back in 2007, Verizon initially refused to send out text messages from a pro-abortion rights group, but backed down under pressure. What if AT&T decides one day that it opposes capital punishment so much that it blocks prodeathpenalty.com and the site of any gubernatorial candidates that support the practice?

MORE: Net Neutrality Won't Save the Internet. Competition Will

Activists of any stripe should be concerned about their right to publish content that an ISP might disagree with. In 2005, Canadian ISP Telus blocked the site of a labor group that encouraged its workers to strike.

Even more insidiously, ISPs can selectively block government websites that provide voter information such as polling locations and registration forms. If they succeeded in lowering voter turnout in certain areas, that could change the course of an election.

3. Freedom of Association

You always talk to your mom on Skype, but then your ISP signs an exclusive deal to make Google Hangouts its only allowed chat service. Meanwhile, Mom's ISP on the other side of the country serves Hangouts at unusable speeds, but gives Skype its fast lane. This scenario may sound crazy, but without any legal constraint, your ISP has every incentive to swing priority access deals with some messaging services while blocking others.

Image Credit: Steve Heap / ShutterstockImage Credit: Steve Heap / Shutterstock

There's already a precedent for blocking messaging clients in the world of wireless broadband. Back in 2009, AT&T blocked iPhones from making Skype calls on its mobile network, but relented under pressure from the FCC. In 2012, the company also blocked Apple FaceTime on the iPhone.

Of course, you and your mom can always talk on old-fashioned landline phones if you both still have them. Unlike broadband providers, wired phone services are defined as common carriers and are legally obligated to accept calls from anyone. VoIP services such as Vonage are exempt, as are cell phone carriers.

4. Freedom to Start a Business

If you decide to open up a restaurant in town and a street gang demands money not to destroy your place "Last Dragon"-style, you'd call the police. But if your business lives on the Internet, you could have as many as a dozen different ISPs in the U.S. shaking you down and, without net neutrality, no recourse against them.

MORE: How Much Internet Speed Should You Really Pay For?

The most important question raised by net neutrality is not "should the government regulate the Internet" but "should a dozen ISPs be allowed to control thousands of other companies?"

Whether you're trying to start the next Netflix or you're a mommy blogger eking out a living on ad revenue, you could be forced to pay broadband providers in order to reach their customers. If you can't pay, providers could slow your site or service down to the point that nobody wants to use it.

5. Freedom of Choice

You like to do all your shoe shopping at Zappos, but your ISP has an exclusive clothing deal with Walmart, so it slows down Zappos.com so badly that each page takes a minute to load and you get timeout messages when submitting your credit card information. You might be determined enough to keep visiting your favorite online shoe store despite these roadblocks, but most people won't bother.

You've been using Gmail as your primary email address for years, but your ISP decides to slow down that service and speed up Microsoft's Outlook.com instead. How long will you stick with the slow email over the fast one?

In a world where ISPs can slow down or outright block whatever services they like, your freedom to choose everything from your email client to your online university could disappear.

Lead Image Credit: Steve Heap / Shutterstock