Assume that you are one of the nigh on 90 million people worldwide subscribed to Netflix. It’s a good deal for you – you get access to a catalogue of popular TV and those weird movies which you never saw but always thought might be fun to watch – and they get your green.
The problem is that for the internet service providers (ISPs), streaming services take up considerable amounts of traffic. Not that the ISPs are being put of business – yearly profits remain immense – but for them, it makes better business sense if they can control how traffic moves on their information superhighways.
Thanks to Ajit Pai, FCC chairman and former Verizon employee, the long cherished dream of American ISPs getting control over their own destiny is about to come true. The only problem is that grabbing their destiny means grabbing control of other companies’ destinies too. And that’s not even mentioning how it could affect regular citizens.
Net neutrality, in its purest sense, is an argument against ISPs getting to decide who gets what speeds. Rather than allowing them to play slightly corrupt toll-guards, telling which cars to stop and which cars to fork over an extra few million bob, they were supposed to give everyone equal access. This was not a ruling they liked: one “cable giant”, Charter Communications, has been saved by the FCC’s bell, given that they seem to have been ‘throttling’ Netflix (i.e. significantly lowering speeds, and therefore access).
For all of its advantages, net neutrality in America had a few big flaws – most notably that it was an Obama holdover, and perhaps almost as notably, that ISPs are immensely powerful lobbyists. With one of their men working inside the FCC, they’ve succeeded in potentially fundamentally changing the political nexus for American internet habits.
Because it’s not just you not being able to get Netflix streaming as quickly as before: ISPs might start charging the streaming service to get better access. Similar pressures might be applied to Facebook and other content producers, many of whom might see fit to pass that pain onto the customer.
And if this works well enough, we might see pay to play stifle creativity at lower levels: how do smaller companies, without the money to pay ransom, deal with this scenario? The answer is ‘probably not very well’. Access from outside the country might wrack up a hefty fee, which the ISP could dictate with impunity.
And then there’s the dystopian angle: ISPs could effectively ban sites which are seen as unsavoury to their interests. We live in a time in which Google can effectively ‘vanish’ sites by delisting them, so it’s hardly a leap into the absurd.
At the end of the day, much of this is ‘worst possible outcomes’ – ISPs are money-hungry, but not necessarily megalomaniacs. That Ajit Pai has even given them the immense power they now wield, however, is a worrying sign of things to come.