By the time you read this it may be too late. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the USA is set to vote soon to repeal the 2015 regulations which maintained “common carrier status” on telecommunications companies. This would effectively end “net neutrality” and bring about a new age for the internet.
Net neutrality has been in the news a lot lately because of this potential change, but despite a slew of well-meaning explanations about what it is, few commentators have delved into the post-net neutrality world to give people a visceral understanding of the consequences of this change.
First some terminology – I promise this won’t be too painful. A carrier is a person or company that transports something. It could be people, power, parcels, or in the case of the Internet: bits. A common carrier does this for the general public and as such is subject to some regulatory body. In the USA the regulatory body is the FCC. In Canada it’s the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). A contract carrier transports specifically for their clients and can refuse to transport for anyone else.
Think about this for a minute. The internet is not a series of tubes from you to Google and Facebook. It is a large, complex, network of networks. When you visit a website the bits from that website may (and probably do) travel through dozens of networks and over multiple carriers to get to you. If any of the carriers between you and the website choose to not transport those bits then there is risk that your request will fail.
An important legal requirement for common carriers as public providers is that they cannot discriminate, that is refuse the service, unless there is some compelling reason. That word discriminate is important. It extends not just to race, sex, age, religion, etc., but also to competition. A telecommunications company cannot refuse to carry a competitor’s bits. It also cannot treat them differently, as in cause them to be slower.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. Ten years ago none of these existed: Uber, Airbnb, Instagram, Snapchat, Kickstarter, Pinterest, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger. All of them needed their customers to be able to access them over the Internet. These are large companies employing tens of thousands of people. All of that would be at risk if the telecommunications companies decided that this new company competed with their car service, rental service, photo service, etc.
Netflix moved from DVD rentals to streaming just ten years ago. Now imagine that you’re a telecommunication company that makes money selling advertising time during your TV shows and movies that you broadcast. An upstart young company comes along with a new model to stream ad-free movies to subscribers. Well, if you are not forced to allow them to use your network by net neutrality laws then you can simply not allow your subscribes to connect to Netflix.com. Or, more insidiously, you can allow them to connect, but make the connection slow or undependable, thereby stymieing your competition without a shot being fired. Without common carrier rules, Netflix would have no grounds for complaint and no one to complain to.
Without net neutrality rules and common carrier status for telecommunications companies this is the future: the only new ideas that you will ever see succeed on the Internet will be ideas that make those companies money. Period.
Imagine for a moment that the highways were all corporately owned and not governed under common carrier rules. You pay a toll to drive on them, which is fine because you don’t pay taxes for them anymore. Awesome, right? Except when a newer, cheaper transportation company starts up that can reduce your business’ costs by 10% you suddenly discover that you can’t use them, because the company that owns the road has their own transport company and they won’t let another one compete with them. Your business cannot access any service that the road owner doesn’t grant access to. Your business cannot deliver goods to an area that the road owner doesn’t allow you to access – for any reason. This is not a future you want to live in.
In case you think this is a hypothetical discussion, it is not. In 2005 Telus blocked access for all of its subscribers to a website that was supporting the union that Telus was in a contract dispute with. They censored the Internet for their corporate purposes. They and every other Internet provider will do this again if given the opportunity. The only thing preventing them from doing this is common carrier status.
The Internet is not a fad. It is the preeminent way that our civilization communicates information to one another now. The thought of handing over the keys to that knowledge to a dozen or so companies, who by law are bound only to maximize benefits for their shareholders, is simply terrifying. Not because corporations are evil, but because they are amoral, and fair and equal access to the Internet is a moral issue made real by the technical ability to pick and choose the winners and losers.
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