What will the Web look like without net neutrality?
Net neutrality is dead, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday, invalidating Federal Communications Commission rules requiring Internet service providers to treat all traffic equally.
So-called net neutrality principles stipulate that telecoms can't block, stifle or discriminate against traffic. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which sided with Verizon Communications Inc.'s challenge of the FCC rules, said the commission can't regulate Internet service providers like it does phone companies. That means ISPs are now free to make deals with some services, like Netflix and Amazon, to provide faster service.
The ruling, if it stands, may have consequences for everyone who uses the Internet. The FCC has said it may appeal.
Here are some of the ways experts said the Internet may change without net neutrality. This is the Internet of the future -- Web 3.0, you could say, the next evolution of the Internet from its founding and the interactive Web 2.0 of today.
Be warned: It's not pretty.
1. Rich companies will pay big money to see their content delivered quickly. Poor companies will have a harder time accessing their customers.
The most obvious effect of net neutrality's demise will be that deep-pocketed online content providers (websites like Netflix and Amazon) will be able to pay ISPs for faster content delivery, said Derek Turner, a freelance journalist who is research director for the media advocacy group Free Press. But faster delivery for deep-pocketed sites means slower content delivery for poorer online presences. "The Internet is zero-sum," said Turner. Faster delivery for Netflix will almost certainly mean slower delivery for other websites.
Turner likened dismantling net neutrality to breaking a two-lane highway into a "dirt road" and a "clean, really well-maintained toll road." Websites with deep pockets use the toll road for smooth traveling, while everyone else is relegated to the dirt road. Moreover, said Turner, ISPs have an incentive to "not maintain the dirt road" because they want companies to pay for the "toll road."
2. Rich customers and poor customers will see two very different Webs.
The flip side of the "toll road," said Todd O’Boyle, program director of the liberal advocacy organization Common Cause, is that ISPs may begin charging customers to see certain websites. Of course, this would be couched in the language of favoring certain big players -- people could be offered "discount" broadband, where they're only allowed access to a small number of curated sites, while content providers might be asked to pay extra for the privilege of having their content seen by even the ISP's "discount" customers.
O'Boyle said this is already being done in Africa. Facebook is subsidizing its content for subscribers who can't afford the "real" internet. Access to Facebook is probably better than no Internet at all. But do we really want all websites segregated between rich and poor?
3. The big companies of today will be the big companies of tomorrow. The net sans neutrality will smother innovation.
With net neutrality gone, the Internet's "level playing field" is gone, said Turner. In the future, it will be much easier for companies that already have a lot of money to buy better access to consumers, leaving their competitors in the lurch. With net neutrality gone, being an "Internet incumbent" becomes a huge advantage.
Moreover, said Turner, ISPs can now favor content creators that give them a share of the profit by blocking traffic that may interfere with the creator's revenue. Comcast in particular has a nasty history with this. In 2012, it imposed data caps that stifled all online video streaming -- except from Comcast-owned content provider Xfinity. Comcast also attempted to block all types of peer-to-peer trafficking in 2007, a move that, without net neutrality, is now legal.
4. ISPs will curate your Internet like cable does your TV channels.
The obvious business model for ISPs without net neutrality is one much like cable television, said Turner. They'll offer "bundles" that curate the sites you see. The cheapest, fastest bundles will probably include the sites that pay ISPs the most -- most likely the big boys, including Amazon and Netflix. Another possibility is that ISPs could bundle popular sites with less-popular ones that are willing to pay. If you pay for a Netflix bundle, for example, you may be forced to use the Bing search engine.
Nastier yet, said Turner, ISPs and big businesses may team up to offer "exclusive deals." Netflix and Time Warner Cable, say, could strike a deal that makes Netflix only available to Time Warner Cable customers (or, more likely, only available to certain customers at its fastest speed). This kind of deal may make businesses a lot of money. The only people hurt are users.
5. Information, organizational tools and activist networks will become luxuries for the rich.
Many tools that have become crucial to American democracy may, in the future, be restricted to the rich. "Information shouldn't become a luxury," said O'Boyle. He said he worries that if ISPs begin offering "discount bundles" to poorer customers, they'll include very few (or no) news sites in the mix. Access to unrestricted news will become a luxury reserved only for those who can pay more to their providers.
That's bad for users -- and bad for alternative news sites, nonprofits, community organizers, activists and anything without big money behind it. Nonprofits and community websites that rely on the Internet to connect with members, said O'Boyle, "will be challenged to maintain a viable presence if they can't afford a fast lane."
That said, Verizon v. FCC may not actually herald the Internet apocalypse; Kevin Werbach of The Atlantic points out that while the ruling was in many ways unfavorable to the FCC, it did establish that the FFC has legal authority to regulate broadband. Given this, Werbach said he doubts the FCC will allow ISPs to run amok.