This post has been updated.
Let’s talk about the end of net neutrality in terms of a hellscape everyone knows: airport security lines.
The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to repeal its net neutrality rules, which since 2015 had prohibited Internet providers from blocking or slowing particular websites. Washington treats it as a partisan issue, but it’s not. A new survey by the University of Maryland shows 83 percent of Americans — including 75 percent of Republicans — support keeping the existing rules after being presented detailed arguments on both sides.
It’s really about what happens to the smallest players in our economy. So picture another place where the little guy gets hosed: a busy airport. Imagine Verizon and Comcast are running the security lines — and websites and services are the ones trying to get through.
With net neutrality, all those sites pass through at the same speed.
But of course, airport security these days is all about a pecking order. There’s regular security and there’s the faster “TSA Pre” line. Then at many airports, if you pay extra there’s a “Clear” line, a “priority” line for pilots and first-class passengers, and even a super-fast celebrity line that comes with organic seaweed snacks (really).
Without the neutrality rules, Internet providers could set up their own fast lanes — meaning certain websites could buy first-class treatment, while others are stuck in cattle class. Providers could sell Internet service in packages, like cable-TV bundles. Service providers would also have the right to set up their own no-fly lists, blocking certain websites that they don’t like or compete with their own business.
For you, certain websites could slow to a crawl. Or perhaps they wouldn’t show up at all.
The problem isn’t what happens to Silicon Valley companies who can afford special treatment. It’s hard to shed a tear for Facebook or Google fighting with the cable guy over who gets to swim around in the largest pile of money.
See it from the perspective of Kyle Wiens, the co-founder of a website called iFixit.com that helps people repair their own electronics. He gets 10 million visitors each month and provides a great public service, but it’s a small business selling replacement parts and tools. Already, his biggest expense is bandwidth.
“I am worried that there will be a fast lane we don’t have access to for any price because we’re just not big enough,” Wiens says. Without net neutrality rules, he says, bigger sites — some owned by the cable companies — could cut custom deals.
Slower speeds aren’t just an annoyance for his readers. Google search results give lower rankings to slower sites. So if iFixit’s pages slow down, its instructions for replacing an iPhone battery could lose their audience.
Small businesses from craft sellers on Etsy to online video stars have raised the same concerns. It crosses the political spectrum: Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of conservative news outlet Newsmax, has asked the FCC to make sure providers can't block or throttle content, particularly news content, according to the trade publication Multichannel News.
Supporters of ending the neutrality rules, including FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, say the concerns are overblown. Pai says ending the Obama-era net neutrality rules would bring back “light touch” regulations from a previous era when providers mostly stuck with neutrality ideas anyway. He says much of the fuss about net neutrality is really about Silicon Valley giants trying to “cement their dominance over the Internet economy.”
It’s true there may be public interest to create fast lanes for certain data — like a telemedicine connection for a doctor. (At the airport, it’s a good thing that pilots get to use a special line.)
And we don’t know if telecom companies would actually make equivalents to TSA Pre, Clear or that celebrity seaweed lane. Comcast, America’s largest Internet provider, says it isn’t interested in blocking or throttling sites, though it hasn’t closed the door entirely on asking them to pay for priority service (which might feel more like a dedicated service).
But providers would have the ability to set up traffic lanes and likely business incentive to do it. AT&T, which is trying to buy Time Warner, might want to give priority to streaming HBO. Already, it streams its DirecTV Now service to AT&T customers without counting toward their data caps.
What happens if providers do start making service less useful or more expensive? The Federal Trade Commission might be able to intervene, but it has much less power than the FCC at present. Otherwise, we’d have to count on the market to punish bad Internet providers. Too bad 50 million U.S. homes have either zero or just one Internet provider offering 25 Mbps speeds.
The deepest impact will be invisible: small businesses like iFixit stuck in the slow lane. Multiply that impact by thousands of sites, we could lose what makes the Internet so useful in the first place. Without net neutrality, many new ideas just won’t ever take flight.
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