Net neutrality may be on the way out. At a trial Monday between Verizon and the FCC, judges appeared ready to side with the telecommunications giant and strike down the FCC’s network neutrality regulations. Two of the three judges appeared to indicate that they didn’t believe the FCC had the right to stop internet service providers from discriminating against websites.
The crux of the matter comes down to how internet service providers are classified. The FCC classifies broadband as an information service rather than a telecommunications service. The FCC has much broader powers in regulating a telecommunications service. In theory, even if they lose this case, the FCC could reclassify broadband providers and bring back network neutrality. However, such a move would cause political backlash from Republicans, who oppose net neutrality.
If net neutrality is struck down, Verizon will be able to charge web companies for faster service over their lines. Such a tactic would cost big companies like Google, Facebook, and Netflix a lot of money. The bigger downside is that it would create a tiered internet, where the big sites could afford to pay for faster speeds and smaller websites would be left behind. It would essentially end the level playing field that the internet has always represented.
In an ironic twist, Republicans oppose net neutrality because they view it as a government attempt to control the internet. They would rather let the free market regulate the net.
The problem of getting rid of net neutrality is magnified by the fact that only a handful of providers control all of the broadband access in the US. All of the big providers oppose net neutrality, and would likely move to a tiered system like the one Verizon claims it will implement.
The internet has been under attack in recent years from all angles. Government surveillance, long thought to be a problem in 3rd world dictatorships, has been revealed to be present on a large scale in the US. The US Congress has taken shots at the internet as well through legislation like SOPA.
The killing of net neutrality would dwarf all of those problems. One of the core strengths of the internet has always been the level playing field. By charging more for faster access, ISP’s could prevent the next big thing from ever making it. Imagine if Google had been developed in a time without net neutrality. Could it have possibly competed against more established and better financed companies like Microsoft and Yahoo? Imagine Facebook trying to compete against a News Corp backed Myspace. Those sites have gone on to become some of the most popular on the internet, but without the level playing field created by net neutrality, they may have never gotten off the ground.