Firstly, we never had it, not really anyway. You will hear much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the next couple of weeks with regards the hot button topic of net neutrality. Myself? I started off for it, I was sold visions of a “free and open internet”. I was told horror stories of big bad ISPs that would carve up the internet I so love and sell it back to me in small boutique packages that add up to far more than I was paying now. That my favourite sites would be throttled as mega-corporations vacuumed up all the bandwidth, and froze out exciting new upstarts. A heroic saga of proud, but humble, tech-warriors taking on the EVIL ISPs. Which sounds epic and righteous, but when the cataloguers and curators of the information you receive support the cause you’re researching a filter begins to form.
What the removal of net neutrality represents is an opportunity to reshape the internet as we know it. It offers a shift towards a new equilibrium. What it also represents however is the unknown. It is impossible to predict exactly how companies will react upon the lifting of these regulations. Will it result in a two-tiered system of local and national internet access? Will we see ISPs making exclusivity deals with certain providers to paywall content? Will we see the internet divided up into smaller packages and sold back to us at a greater price? If the histrionics coming out of pretty much every major tech firm are anything to go by then yes, the internet apocalypse is coming. But what might their motivations be? Consider this however, just as we see virtue signalling male feminists projecting about “empowering women” right before getting charged with rape, could this all be a case of projection? Are their fears of abuse stemming from their own flagrant abuse of their userbases?
Lets take a look at a few examples of their “concerns”
“The internet will be broken up into smaller chunks so people will not be able to access as many services as they currently can”
Arguably yes, this may be a factor. But why is it such a concern for tech firms like facebook, twitter and google? Each platform is based on the curation and sharing of media from around the web in varying ways. With a subdivided web there is the possibility that such sharing would be greatly limited depending on the specific packages owned by a person’s followers. On top of this a userbase with a diverse configuration of packages makes the value of promoting content lower, since they cannot offer the access to as large a market. Targeting becomes more about visibility than demographics. You sell based on who can access the content which in turn means you’re not specifically targeting interested parties. Smaller pools, lower revenue.
The other factor, and this is the big one, is data. The more time each person spends online consuming a wide range of content the more data they can harvest. A “free and open” internet is the foundation of their respective business models. It funds their operations. But this in turn can be used as a weapon in our favour. It is in their interests to work with ISPs to ensure that we get as uninterrupted an experience as possible. Whether this means cutting deals or simply absorbing the costs they will be forced for the first time to act in your interests rather than their own. Anything else would mean the collapse of their businesses.
“Net Neutrality ensures that large companies can’t pay their way to dominance, it gives everyone an equal opportunity to reach users and gives users the opportunity to see everything”
This particular complaint seems to stem either from a lack of knowledge, or a wilful ignorance of how internet traffic works. Google promotes sites that pay them money to do so through advertising. Many digital marketing firms make millions annually just on optimising websites for google search rankings. Facebook charges customers based on the quantity of news feeds a post will drop on, twitter promotes tweets and orchestrates hashtags, and it’s all driven by money. If you are living under the fantasy that this legislation creates a level playing field for content you are sadly mistaken.
The oligarchic nature of these orgs ensures that this, like so many of the touted reasons to support this legislation, is simply a fear that ISPs will finally be able to do to them as they have done to us for so long. Whole industries have grown up around pushing traffic in front of a user and money ensures a return. True virality cannot be purchased, and a truly inspired creators work will be shared regardless of specific access privileges. Data finds a way. Just as current pay-walled or memory holed content gets shared via screengrabs/archives/reposts word will still spread. Yes you might not make money off every single view of a piece of content (and intellectual property rights are going to experience some changes, make no mistake on that) the information will still be disseminated. This is the beauty of the web. So many branching connections, with each one being a potential conduit to circumnavigate blockades. Even with a fractured web the old maxim of six degrees of separation would hold. No one is losing access to information, but the delivery mechanisms for that information ARE scared of losing money.
Ultimately, once again, this is a case of swapping one master for another. Online businesses are reliant on sites like Twitter and Facebook to push their content, people rely on google for information sourcing. As things currently stand either of these platforms can cripple your business on a whim. They have no obligation to serve you, or to share revenue with you. TOS can be changed in an instant, consequences be damned. If you don’t accept what they put in front of you access is revoked. So much for a “free and open internet”
“Net Neutrality ensures everyone has a voice online. It’s protecting freedom of speech”
Not even remotely true. As so many of us are reminded on a daily basis these are private platforms that have obligation to protect your first amendment rights. They also have no obligation towards transparency which means you can, and often do, end up with the very divisions trusted to “moderate” these platforms pushing politics and partisanship. You are entitled to internet access but the reality of the modern internet is that is dominated by a handful of platforms that a person can very easily find themselves excluding from for expressing the wrong opinions.
Here’s the thing though, if revenue begins to get tighter and userbases become more fractured it will have a surprising effect. It will increase the likelihood of the free speech surviving. Why? Because with higher costs and lower userbases business will be forced to act as businesses. They will no longer be able to afford to silence wrong think for political reasons in the case of otherwise successful channels. Think about the current models that e-celebs are employing, content is typically hosted through a major platform such as Youtube with funding either coming from advertising revenue or funding platforms such as Patreon.
In the case of content creators, the removal of Net Neutrality would actually provide them with leverage to push back against these oligopolistic platforms. It puts power back in their hands as these companies are forced to value a creator based on their revenue generation capabilities rather than their political/social leanings. It would be a return to a pure free market of ideas whereby value is derived not by manipulated algorithms and political pandering, but by sheer unfettered demand. A truly free and fair internet.
A fractured competitive userbase would also more than likely result in an increase in revenue share afforded to content creators as well (as was the case in the early days of Youtube). As platforms would be forced to sell users on signing up for relevant packages the value of content creators increases. We would likely see exclusivity deals but more importantly a better share for smaller channels in order to grow what would ultimately be a potential reset on their userbase. This of course assumes a split on the basis of individual applications rather than a simple, combine video/social media/news package. This is the beauty of a competitive market place. It offers infinitely branching possibilities rather than a standardised experience. It is the difference between capitalism and socialism.
The imposition of this legislation is akin to Obamacare, because in one form or another we are all paying for this legislation. It means that as part of my broadband package I am ultimately paying to subsidise Tumblr, The Huffington Post, CNN, even The Mary Sue. It means that I am paying for services that I am not only not using, but these “services” are specifically seeking to attack right leaning people such as myself. By allowing customers to pick and choose their packages competition will naturally increase as content creators are forced to give people a reason to subscribe to the relevant packages that sprout up. The key to this will be ensuring increased competition in the ISP market and making it easier for people to switch providers as well as simply reconfiguring their existing packages. As will all things in life competition breeds efficiency and puts power back in the hands of the consumer.
An unregulated web will see a tumultuous transition period, I cannot disagree with that. We may see companies try to squeeze some customers, we may see some sites go under due to cost exposure implications, we may see limited access in specific areas. But what we will also see is innovation. Think of how VPNS help Chinese users access uncensored information. We are a creative species that is always looking to find ways around problems and hinderances. Our entire economic and social history is based on overcoming adversity and defeating challenges. A regulated, “level playing field” internet doesn’t foster invention, it funds frippery. It ensures that everyone has an audience, but it limits true innovation because it artificially hides flaws in the internet as it currently operates. It circumvents hardware/software issues through policy rather than problem solving.
It’s an exciting new internet that lies ahead of us. The World Wide Web is returning to it’s roots as a digital Wild Wild West. If you want it to stay free, focus on Antitrust, break up the monopolies rather than trying to find ways to make them workable. Major tech firms are not pushing this out of the kindness of their collective hearts. They stand to lose a lot more than their users do. Enjoy the ride.