Here's What You Need to Know About Net Neutrality, and 5 Questions Worth Asking

Should the Internet become a pay-to-play space?

(Photo: Eduard Korniyenko/Reuters)

Apr 30, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Melissa Rayworth is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has also written for the Associated Press, Salon and Babble.

We talk about the Internet like it's a vast, open city. Filled with stores and public hubs for socializing, it's now a broad stage where we can express ourselves to the world with the click of a button or the swipe of a finger. We no longer need a storefront to sell anything.

For innovators, thinkers, entrepreneurs, and the idle Web surfers and shoppers among us, nothing may be better than the principle of "net neutrality." It promises that people can visit any website or blog page with the same speed and ease: Our best friend's Etsy page is as accessible as Walmart's.

That open online landscape may soon change, and here's why: The Internet isn't a destination like Paris or Milan. It comes to you. You can't see or explore anything online unless a broadband provider funnels it to the device you're using. Until now, net neutrality has meant that providers—such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T—have been expected to send everything to you at the same speed.

But earlier this year, a federal appeals court threw out the FCC's old rules, saying if the FCC doesn't deal with Internet providers as public utilities, then these providers can't be expected to operate that way.

Then last Thursday the FCC chairman began circulating a slightly altered set of rules among his fellow commissioners. These new proposed rules would allow Internet providers some voice in deciding which online content moves around the Web fastest based on which companies pay them the most money.

The proposed rules won't be unveiled publicly until they are put to a vote on May 15. But news of the changes began surfacing last week, worrying those who support net neutrality.

In an open letter on the FCC site, chairman Tom Wheeler promised that the Internet won't soon become a pay-for-play entity where only deep-pocketed companies can get their content out to the world. Updated net neutrality rules will not "change the underlying goals of transparency, no blocking of lawful content, and no unreasonable discrimination among users," Wheeler said. "To be very direct, the proposal would establish that behavior harmful to consumers or competition by limiting the openness of the Internet will not be permitted."

That's encouraging. But here are the questions at stake as the FCC considers changing its rules:

Will the Marketplace of Ideas Shrink Further?

If faster data lanes are speeding to your house, it's likely that smaller sources of information—independent bloggers and start-up news services, for example—are the ones who won't be able to afford the fees to be there. It's already hard to be heard amid the cacophony of voices these days, but at least with net neutrality people punch through sometimes. Ideas can go viral from even the most modest sources. That could disappear if people have to slog through a slow, deliberately buffered connection to do it—although traditional journalism outlets such as newspapers and magazines aren't experiencing a financial boom, so this could hurt them too.

Will Innovators Give Up Even Before They Begin?

Imagine you're brainstorming ideas for a new product or a new service. The road ahead is long: You've got to reason out every aspect of the project and create a working prototype, then begin the long slog of bringing it to market. But even before you begin building a business plan, are you likely to abandon the idea because you know that even once you launch your product online most people will have a hard time accessing it as easily as they can from bigger competitors? Is there any point in starting a page to sell your handmade furniture if shoppers will find your website buffered, luring them to surf elsewhere with ease?

Will Start-up Money Dry Up?

There will always be those trying to launch new small businesses. But will they get turned down for loans because the banks will realize that a tiny fish in a huge pay-for-play Internet pond will have a harder time succeeding than ever? Can you blame investors for rejecting proposals from start-ups in favor of helping fund sure things?

Will Some of the Services We Need Go out of Business?

In less than a decade, we've become a culture dependent on free Web services and workflow fixes (we love you, Dropbox!) that may not be functioning as profitable businesses yet. How many of those will go out of business if the cost to be in the fast lane is too high? Many of us don't know whether the ubiquitous services we rely on are profitable.

Will Limited Competition Drive Up Costs?

Will slightly slower surfing times mean shoppers won't bother searching the websites of small businesses? And if major retailers are stuck paying higher fees to do business online and they know that smaller competitors are being squeezed out, aren't they likely to seize the opportunity to charge all of us a bit more for their products?