Net Neutrality: who will champion the open web?
There are plenty of people out there (myself included) who find it difficult to engage in politically charged conversations online; the vehemence displayed by the uninformed, agenda-driven, and anonymous are a deterrent in themselves that help form the ugly fray that are the forums, feeds, and threads of the digital community. Businesses especially avoid such arguments to distance themselves from a topic or issue that might alienate potential or existing customers from their brand. Yet one instance that rankles with business owners and marketeers is with Net Neutrality. In many instances, political and global agendas can resonate with individuals within a business without having any direct implications on the business itself which makes it difficult for such organisations to speak out and risk any losses in revenue or brand equity. However, in the case of small and medium businesses, wherever they may be, the threat to Net Neutrality is a direct threat to success and yet we see less of an uproar from the startup and SME community than we do from the Champions of Net Neutrality such as Tumblr and Netflix, who might actually gain from such a move. Even the Champions’ are finding it increasingly difficult to remain steadfast. Why is this, and who will man the bastion once they’re gone?
A brief history
In the close future , it is probable that you will have difficulty accessing most of the websites that exist. Not because they are failing businesses, or they cannot afford their hosting bill this year, but because your internet service provider will give preferential treatment to companies that can afford it over them. This is not just an issue of freedom for small business owners and content providers, it’s an issue of freedom for you, as a ‘netizen’, to access whatever you want online.
The issue of Net Neutrality dates back to debates that arose in the late 90’s concerning the integration of cable firms with internet service providers. As the popularity of the web grew, big cable firms in the US became interested in assimilating internet access into their business model. Web regulation was unheard of at the time and concerned netizens worried that cable firms would use their power by restricting access to certain content and sites (…..guess what? )
In 2002, Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia Law School published a paper called ‘Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination’, which popularised the concept of Net Neutrality by outlining regulation as the best means of fighting the threat that ISPs(internet service providers) pose to the web through discrimination against sites and businesses who threatened them either as a competitor or otherwise; AT&T blocked Skype to stop people using its service over their own mobile phone call packages until 2009.
The problem we face today is not simply that communications competitors are under threat; they’ve moved on. The problem is ISPs like Verizon, who fight to enable a fast-lane, slow-lane system that favours deep pockets. Internet providers want to create premium bandwidth for companies who can afford it at the cost of all other companies who are then relegated to a low-performance tier. Which brings me to the next point.
Who will be affected?
Initially, Net Neutrality was an issue for small and medium businesses trying to be innovative in the online communication and file transfer/storage industries but now all small businesses face a major issue. In an age where performance is everything how can you attract and retain consumers to your site or service when they must accept sub-standard streaming, load times, rendering, et al.
Trying to get a foothold in a market with big competitors is, for most, an overwhelming task. Being smart, innovative, and quick can get you a long way but when you are trying to produce a service to rival large, established companies that have access to the fast-lane while you plod along a congested slow one few are going to adopt. Don’t forget that performance factors like site speed are incredibly important ranking factors for search engines such as Google; the direct impact of which will stifle the vast majority of tech startups from the get-go.
Fallen from grace
Major companies that once fought at the forefront for Net Neutrality are dropping like flies. Tumblr’s battle is being killed by Verizon following their acquisition by the telecommunications giant, where once they were considered amongst the greatest proponents alongside the likes of Amazon, Reddit, WordPress, Netflix (who have also been accused of violating Net Neutrality) and much more.
I can’t even talk about Facebook’s violation of Net Neutrality it’s so bad.
Worse yet, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), who has fought ardently for Net Neutrality since the early 2000s have begun rolling back regulations. Barrack Obama pleaded for Net Neutrality throughout his office as President of the United States, but as President Trump ushers in a new FCC chairman, announcements that FCC regulations will be rolled back have already been made public.
This is not to say that support for Net Neutrality doesn’t exist, in fact, John Oliver, host of HBO’s ‘Last Week Tonight’ program, successfully leveraged his audience to crash the FCC’s site by encouraging viewers to express their anger at proposed regulation changes on the comment section. Not only was the site completely down but John Oliver successfully did this twice; once in June 2014 when the FCC made proposals to allow ISPs rights to charge for a premium bandwidth service (‘fast-lane’ internet), and again in May 2017 following the FCC’s new Chairman, Ajit Pai’s announcement that Net Neutrality rules would no longer exist under the current US political administration.
You may not feel that sympathetic for the hamstrung ambitious entrepreneurs who’ve lost their opportunity for world domination but don’t forget that all the services you love and enjoy everyday online were once startups; there would probably have never been any Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Amazon, Wikipedia…you get the picture. This is what really worries me; the impact that most commentators talk about is to small businesses, but what about you? The sad truth is that you might not even realise the impact a breakdown in Net Neutrality will have on you. Of all the incredible innovations in technology that are possible, how many will never happen when the Verizons and the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world create the web that inhibits them? The answer is you will never know because they will never happen.
When all of the Tumblrs of the world have been silenced who will fight for neutrality? When regulatory bodies like the FCC don’t serve your interests who is there to even turn to? The argument is not something to audit from the sidelines as it will irrevocably change the internet from the free forming, innovative space, where anything and everything can be found, formed, created and shared.