We've Already Squandered Net Neutrality — And That's OK (Op-Ed)

It took less than 2 hours for the Internet to journey from the lofty ambitions to the banal reality of net neutrality. On Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. EST, the Federal Communications Commission assumed regulatory power to prevent Internet service providers (ISPs) from favoring certain types of traffic and throttling (slowing) or blocking others. At 3 p.m. that same day, the Internet lost its collective marbles over a couple of fugitive llamas and, later that night, an overexposed picture of a dress.

In spite of high-minded discussions about how net neutrality would foster artistic creativity, education and entrepreneurial opportunity, there is something to be said for how it also lets people bond over incredibly stupid Internet phenomena. There is perhaps no better tribute to the preservation of net neutrality than the Internet promptly forgetting about that the issue and flitting to something else.

MORE: What Is Net Neutrality?

Proponents and detractors of net neutrality have resorted to very pessimistic and optimistic extreme scenarios of the free market. In a dark case, an ISP such as Verizon might require you to pay extra to access Netflix instead of Verizon's own video service. Or, Verizon might make you wait ages for the websites of Comcast-owned NBC to load. You might even lose access to sites Verizon deems objectionable.

Critics of net neutrality paint rosy pictures in which, left to its own devices, the free market would sort out problems like this on its own. But that requires that consumers have a choice among ISPs competing for customers by offering better services. In practice, cable companies (which are also the main ISPs) have monopolies in many parts of the United States and often just one competitor in others.

With that in mind, think back to Thursday. Had net neutrality failed, perhaps Comcast subscribers would have found it a bit easier to access NBC stories about the Internet phenomena. Maybe Birch (a popular broadband service in the Southern states) would have decided that this silliness was cutting into customers who wanted to stream Netflix, which was paying for fast-lane access into the Birch network, and throttled social media traffic.

Instead, the people of the Internet were free to ignore one of the most important developments in the history of the Internet, the FCC vote, and focus instead on a couple of rambunctious camelids and a sartorial optical illusion. Think of the multitude of tweets, jokes, memes, quizzes and honest-to-goodness think pieces that came out of these two passing fascinations. Now, think about how much less fun they would have been if your ISP had blocked some of them or preselected the "best" ones for you.

It's true. The citizens of the Internet don't appreciate what a good thing they have with net neutrality, and would rather focus on two hashtags that, in a few days, will seem as dated as top hats and cassette tapes. But, on the other hand, ignoring politics to focus on anything you want — no matter how dumb — is one of the many things net neutrality allows.

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Marshall Honorof is a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide. Contact him at mhonorof@tomsguide.com. Follow him @marshallhonorof. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.