Net Neutrality is a Freedom of Speech Issue

on Thursday, Apr. 24th

Today you are seeing a lot of digital ink spilled over a Wall Street Journal report that says the FCC will allow the establishment of an “Internet Fast Lane.” Said “fast lane” would allow Internet Service Providers (like Comcast) to charge content providers (that would be your Netflix) for better access on their networks.

Now one level of this is about commerce. Video streaming eats up a huge amount of bandwidth and the question of who should pay for the maintenance of the infrastructure is a legitimate question. If Netflix usage eats up more resources than other services it seems logical that there should be some kind of cost associated with that.

Unfortunately the law of unintended consequences means that the establishment of a tiered Internet is going to hurt the little guys the most.

Under the current rules for the Open Internet both Netflix and your local video store’s website have the same level of access to the lines that go into your home. (This assumes you have a local video store, I know its a stretch, but let’s imagine one still exists.) Any difference in quality you encounter when accessing those two sites is more likely to be on their end than yours.

Tiered Internet changes that. It means that Netflix–or Hulu, or YouTube etc.–can pay a premium to the ISP and bypass whatever congestion is on your local network. This creates a strong financial incentive for the ISPs to ignore the health of the “basic” network and focus on making the “fast lane” better.

That, right there, is where the freedom of speech issue comes in.

When this crazy social experiment called the World Wide Web kicked off it held out a unique promise: anyone with access and the know-how could become a publisher. Anyone with access could discover that publisher’s works. In the time since the Net has gotten crowded, but it has remained flat and that has allowed for new ways of communication to flourish. Those new ways of communication have sparked a wave of political change across the globe.

Not every entrepreneur who starts a new media company holds out long enough to become a pillar of the Internet. Plenty of them sell their start-ups to larger firms, as Skype did to Microsoft, or What’s App did to Facebook. In a world with a tiered Internet, however, Facebook might not have been able to get access to the fast lane and thus never have gotten large enough to buy What’s App.

That concern pales in comparison with the possibility that the “common folk” who have little one-off blogs and personal websites selling their wares might find themselves ghettoized online. We all know in our heart of hearts that the Internet breeds impatience, and if it takes longer to load a page from a small voice than it does from the corporate owned media most of the time we are going to just go ahead and ignore the little guy.

That’s what should be freaking us out about the Net Neutrality rules, which FCC head Tom Wheeler appears to be trying to doublespeak around today, not whether our Netflix bills are going to go up.

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