There’s a lot of talk, understandably, about Net Neutrality right now after the FCC’s vote the other day. Some of it is legitimate, some of it is garbage and all of it, as with any other major change, leaves a lot of unknowns. More than most issues these days the issue of Net Neutrality worries me both professionally and personally due to a number of factors mostly centering on the potential implications it could have on our society as a whole over the course of the next few generations. Here are a few of my own thoughts as someone who has worked both in tech as well as some of the most regulated industries in our modern economy including aviation, healthcare and education.
Removing the Title II classification is not deregulation
First and foremost we have to wake up to the fact that removing the Title II classification, the bulk of what was done last week by the FCC, is not deregulation. The regulation imposed by a government is more than the number of words on paper and, as in this case, can take the form of a conscious choice to regulate an industry in favor of one set of players over another The FCC, in this case, has made a choice to regulate the internet in favor of the few large internet service providers that control the access to the internet for the vast majority of both American individuals and corporations. Selling this choice on the idea that less documented regulation is somehow deregulating the internet is nothing but a sideshow to win over the opinions of groups of people who tend to think anything the government puts on paper is bad.
Lack of Net Neutrality means paying for delivery, not for access
Everyone on the internet pays for access. From the users at home to the large media providers all are paying to get online and expect what they send to be treated equally. The main goal of removing Net Neutrality is to remove that expectation of equal delivery after you’ve paid for the access. In other words the internet service providers want to continue to charge all for access but now want to charge those using their access to provide a product to make sure it is actually delivered.
At a basic level this means the internet service providers want a cut of what you’re using the internet to send out and has severe implications over time, particularly for smaller companies who don’t have the margin to spare. In addition, even for the companies that can afford to get started it will often mean the end user will be making up the difference either in raw dollars, more intrusive advertising or simply lack of availability to smaller, independent content and other products.
The effects will not be felt tomorrow
The bulk of the hysteria around Net Neutrality is in the thought that we’ll wake up one single day soon and be faced with packaged internet in the same way that we buy packaged cable. It won’t happen that way as people would rise up in a way that might actually lead to meaningful regulation to fix the problem.
Net Neutrality will, instead, kill the internet in the same way one would boil a frog. Small changes over time that particularly affect new entrants to the market will instead culminate in fewer choices and greater expense over time. Independent media and services that aren’t owned by the internet service providers will suffer loss of advertising dollars and other revenue over time, putting many out of business as the “preferred” services simply run better. Most people will leave a website if it takes more than a couple of seconds for a page to load now. As that delay is exaggerated due to fast-lanes and other issues it’s effects will result, over time, in fewer and less diverse sources for the information and services that people are trying to access. This is a process that will take years, not days or weeks and as such will go unnoticed by many.
You will still get your social media
Facebook, Google, Twitter… They’re not going anywhere nor is your access to them. We all know it would simply be impossible for our internet providers to enforce a direct monetary cost to consumers on something that we’ve become accustomed to for “free.” They’ll still have to pay for delivery but those costs will be passed on to consumers in the form of more ads and other methods that don’t directly go after our credit cards.
The thing here is we have those services already. While a scenario of bundling access to sites like cable tv is possible, as appears to be the case in countries like Portugal, it isn’t likely here. The marketing of such a change would never get the approval of the end users. In other words, things you have today, especially the services offered by giant companies such as Facebook, Google, Time Warner and others aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The cost in public relations would far outweigh the benefits over all but the longest of terms.
Innovation will suffer the most
So what will be hurt by Net Neutrality? It’s the startups, the innovators, the smaller websites, services and content providers that don’t have the financial backing to compete with the delivery costs of the larger, already established players. “Start-up culture” and the independent developers will suffer as will open-source and other projects that have driven so much of the development of the web and related services over the last 10-20 years.
Without access to customers new ideas will simply not be able to make it to consumers the way they have been since before the dot-com bubble almost 20 years ago. From the dozens of to-do list apps to independent music and stores that don’t sell through large markets such as Amazon it will be much harder to get anything new to consumers.
The poor and those just getting started will find it harder to get ahead
From video courses that compete with large players like Lynda to start-ups that are willing to take a chance on an inexperienced employee the lack of innovation and diversity of content and services will hurt the poor and inexperienced, such as students, the most. Many in tech and other industries, not to mention students in traditional college programs of all kinds of differences, use the internet to augment their training if not as the sole source of their initial training in their discipline. Reducing the availability of free content as well as the market for new products, content and services will simply reduce the opportunities for those just getting started or whom are simply looking to better their position in life.
Already today the internet is a commodity necessary for life in our modern society. Even the most basic of job applications in retail and other locations are distributed if not applied for on the internet. Making these harder to discover and less available as well as making it harder to get the education needed to perform all but the most basic of jobs will simply hurt those who aren’t already set in their careers and position in our economy.
Let’s also look at this from the point of dollars. In this case for the services that are paid for by ads, as stated earlier, not much will change. But what if the packaged internet scenario was to come true or what if Net Neutrality serves to do nothing but double the internet bill for all of us? Frankly that won’t hurt me too much personally as I could absorb an extra $65/month without too much issue. For someone who is struggling to make ends meat however that much of a price increase, where $65 might be the power or water bill, could be enough to completely cut them out of the internet and, as a result, much of the modern economy. From children in poor households to young and old people trying to enter or change careers while balancing the challenges of life this extra cost will be far more of a burden than just about anything else, even if many of us who are reading this will have the privilege of being able to afford it.
Why I worry about Net Neutrality
In the end I worry about Net Neutrality, or more specifically the lack thereof, because over time it will weaken us as a society. In an age where the un-restricted access to information has become a commodity as important as, if not more so, oil and others reducing access to that commodity will, given time, hurt us all in ways that are far more important that just whether or not I can get to Facebook or Twitter tomorrow without coughing up a few extra dollars. While the world will go on without US leadership, as is already being demonstrated over the last year, over time real innovation will simply move to greener pastures leaving those of us who are here in the dust.