A federal court ruling is expected any day now that's all but certain to kill net neutrality, and
destroy transform the internet as we know it. For the worse.
So, in case you've fallen behind on the status of the debate, or if your eyes have always glazed over at the mere sight of the words 'net neutrality', here's a brief refresher on the stakes: Without the current government regulations requiring internet providers to give equal treatment to all websites, cable companies and telecom giants would be free to play favorites and essentially dole out the web per their whims or financial interests, slapping tolls on the internet superhighway we cruise everyday.
The service providers are arguing that as private companies, the government has no right to regulate how to operate their business. But internet freedom advocates—or any web user in their right mind—argue that while that's technically true, those companies are also the gatekeepers of today's information economy, and what's at stake outweighs their pitch. Losing net neutrality would erode the open platform the internet was designed to be; if ISPs hold the keys to who gets to use the web and how, there goes the level playing field.
The US appeals court for DC is considering whether to strike down the FCC rules implemented in 2010 that ensure a neutral web, and the court has indicated it's very likely to do just that. It may all sound like a bunch of wonky policy talk, but the effects would be quite real for anyone that spends time online. Here are some of the major ways the decision to strike down net neutrality would change the internet.
1. It'll be more expensive
We already pay to access the internet—both normal-folk "end users", and website owners and web companies who want to reach that audience. But ISPs would be free to slap fees on top of our monthly service charges, say, by charging tech giants like Google and Facebook extra for access. Those sites could then turn around and hike up the price for use of their services or content to recoup the costs, which means extra bucks out of your pocket.
2. It'll look like cable TV
Or worse, the internet providers—many of whom are cable companies—could wind up charging subscription fees for specific cobbled-together packages of websites, with tiered pricing, just like a cable package. When the same monopolistic companies providing content are also producing it, it's awfully easy for them to undercut the competition, so you can say goodbye to the easily accessible, diverse range of art, music, blogs, and so on now available on the web and look forward to a Big Media-dominated entertainment industry once again.
3. Service will be worse, unless you’re willing to pay
Even if the court throws out net neutrality rules, ISPs won't be authorized to block websites willy-nilly. But little would stop them from doing effectively that by slowing speeds to a crawl for certain customers—say, websites that are their direct competitors, or compete with other companies they do business with. It's not hard to imagine an internet landscape where bandwidth is doled out based on who can afford to pay off a broadband provider in a backroom deal over cigars. Or, slightly less sketchy than that, a system that offers users tiered pricing for connection speeds—a fast lane for those who can afford it and a slow lane for the rest of us.
4. There will be less innovation
The obvious consequence of that web landscape is that it makes it hard for the little guy to compete—or even start out. The internet's current level playing field means two dudes in their garage with an idea for a new kind of search engine can launch a website for the cost of a large pizza. But with the loss of "permission-less innovation," ISPs would have the power to hand-pick the winning and losing web companies, making it harder for scrappy startups to succeed.
5. Online video will seriously suffer
Speaking of running over the competition, the first roadkill would most likely be online video companies like Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube that threaten to steal a piece of the cable industry's lucrative pie. Providing affordable internet service—and the considerable bandwidth needed to stream movies and TV shows—would definitely not be in the best interest of the companies providing the internet connection.
6. So will BitTorrent sites
Of course, the same is true for the websites that enable torrents and downloading of copyright-protected content, which ISPs are already under pressure to block from Big Media and the lawmakers it lobbies. Without FCC protections, it would be easier for service providers to throttle traffic to these so-called piracy sites.
7. The Googleverse will dominate
It's important to note that internet providers aren't the only ones whose power would increase if the court rules against net neutrality. The decision would essentially speed up the consolidation and corporatization of the web that's been happening for years, as a shrinking few web behemoths control a growing chunk of the internet ecosystem.
With the introduction of Google Fiber, the company's fledgling high-speed internet option, Google is now an ISP on top of, well, everything else it does. Depending on how the future of fiber-optic communication unfolds—which will be even more interesting to watch if net neutrality rules do disappear—Google Fiber and other gigabit internet options could see a boost from users set on abandoning their cable or broadband providers, which will only expand Google's reign over cyberspace.
8. It'll be censored
In the digital age, those that control the internet’s proverbial pipes are also the gatekeepers of its torrent of information. Internet providers would theoretically be capable of blocking press reports or any controversial content based on their business interests, political leanings, or even pressure from governments. It's a slippery slope indeed.
Granted, all of this is all a worst-case-scenario outlook—though not far-fetched. If neutrality is struck down, we'll likely see a backlash against the big telcos and cable companies, which, let’s face it, are aren’t at the top of anyone’s party guest list as is. Underground pirate internets and mesh networks that don’t rely on middleman access already exist in the anarchist corners of the world. If net neutrality does in fact go out the window, these free networks could get a very nice publicity boost.