The year is 2020, and enough time has passed for the Federal Communication Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules to have changed the way we communicate online. What’s it like to use the internet?
Negotiating internet access will feel a lot like negotiating your cable television or cellphone bill. You’ll be forced to untangle various packages relating to different sites and services you might use, pay for ISP-branded content you probably don’t care about, and get that sinking feeling at the beginning of every month that, one way or another, you’re overpaying.
Instead of simply worrying about how much internet you use or how fast you need it to be, you’re going to have to worry about what kind of internet you use. Premium sites like Netflix and YouTube will likely cost more, you’ll be nickel-and-dimed for the use of free apps like iMessage and FaceTime, and unfettered access to the full internet will be more expensive.
Start-ups, facing even higher barriers of entry, will be forced to spend money partnering with telecom companies. Fewer of them will survive. And the start-ups that do survive will spend an unnecessarily high amount of their income paying to survive. This is great news for established companies like Facebook and Google that will always be able to afford internet tolls. They will cement their already dominant position against newer but better sites and services.
Decentralized services like bitcoin might never reach critical mass, since they have no corporate backing to pay the internet tolls, and will be automatically relegated to the slow lane of the internet from the get go.
Telecoms may also exert influence on political speech — like in 2007 when Verizon prevented Naral Pro-Choice from using text messages to sign up new supporters, citing their right to block “controversial or unsavory” content. Verizon felt entitled to manipulate its cellphone network — its private infrastructure. By 2020, telecoms may also feel entitled to keep their internet customers from accessing certain types of political speech on the public net.
Change will happen gradually, and — like the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water — you may not notice it. Ever so slowly, you’ll experience more buffering and delays when watching Netflix during peak hours (unless you pay through the nose). Remember when Comcast intentionally didn’t upgrade its network and actually caused Netflix’s service to slow to a crawl? There’s a good chance that’ll happen again. And good luck complaining to Comcast about your cable modem connection. They won’t be listening, and neither will our government.
It doesn’t take much of an imagination to guess what might be waiting for us on the other side of the death of network neutrality, because the changes are already happening in the wireless market. If you want to use AT&T’s or Verizon’s video services on their networks, you currently won’t pay for the data. (It’s called “zero-rated data.”) But if you want to use YouTube, Netflix or a new video service, that’ll cost you.
Eventually the changes will give way to a race to the bottom: ISPs will charge more and more to access the most valuable external services, and only those incumbents with enough cash will be able to reach their users. Everyone else, including start-ups, nonprofits, academics and regular people running their own websites, will be relegated to the undifferentiated trough of slow-lane internet traffic.
This sad portrait of the future internet is at odds with its legacy of egalitarian access to any kind of content, service or idea.
The repeal of Title II protections — under which the FCC treated telecoms as common carriers — dealt a severe blow to the struggle for a free and open internet. But the fight is not over. The core promise of a neutral network remains, and public support for it is both overwhelming and astonishingly clear. We can make it happen, but we’re going to need the help of Congress and the judicial branch to enshrine the principle into law.
Let’s make network neutrality the hot-button issue for the 2018 midterms. Have you asked your representative what they’ll do to reinstate it when you vote them back into office?
Fred Benenson was the vice president of data at Kickstarter and an admissions manager at Y Combinator. He is the creator of Pitch Deck, a game satirizing tech culture.