Innovation Requires Chaos. Net Neutrality Kept that Chaos Alive. Now it’s Dead.
If you were already old enough to own a computer in the 90s or 2000s, or you were able to sneak onto your parents’ computer and your pre-diagnosis ADD didn’t stop you from sitting through the dial-up, you probably first became aware of the internet as a fairly surprising place (albeit a pretty slow one). It was essentially the new Wild West. Anyone who had an idea, and a friend who knew how to design a website, could build their own little corner of the internet for some stranger to stumble upon. You might make a place where people could go and buy music, or you might go and build a site where people could go and steal music. You might have the gall to design a website where you essentially don’t create any new content yourself, and instead, you ask the people who come to your site to create your content for you. Video content! And that just might wind up making you enough money to never cry again.
Unfortunately, the days of the Internet Gold Rush may be over, and that may be very bad for your business. An internet that supports innovation is a chaotic internet, and chaos actually requires regulation so that up and coming businesses can load as quickly as the giants they’re competing against.
The FCC wants to end that chaos. These are the Internet Neutrality Rules put in place in 2015 that have just been repealed:
Internet Service Providers could not discriminate against any lawful content by blocking websites or apps.
Service providers could not slow the transmission of data based on the nature of the content, as long as it is legal.
Service providers could not create an internet fast lane for companies and consumers who pay premiums, and a slow lane for those who don’t.
These principles are what make the internet a place for entrepreneurship to flourish. Counter-intuitively, an internet without these rules will become a rather boring one, where “internet” simply becomes synonymous with “Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, Email, and porn.” Nothing else will make a name for itself because these sites already dominate our time, and they’re now allowed to become far more attractive because they’ll load more quickly than their fledgling competitors. Why would we become internet explorers, searching for new amazing content we’ve never dreamed of, when we can just keep on gobbling up content from the sites we already know and love, and make it so much easier on us?
Critics of Net Neutrality point out that any Internet Service Provider who does wind up stifling competition will just be dropped by its users. If Verizon starts to slow service to Etsy, can’t you just switch to AT&T? What if AT&T does it too? Can’t you just switch to some indie ISP based out of Brooklyn? The problem is that in many parts of the country, service is only provided by the biggest companies. So if you’re a small business hoping to have a flourishing online presence, then you better hope you have enough money to pay the ISPs for premium service. If you don’t have it, then you might just be going back to the good old fashioned lemonade stand model.
Take a look at this ISP in Portugal (where there is no net neutrality), and how it has decided to fracture its services.
So you might have enough money for messaging services, but may have to choose between keeping up with your friends on social media or keeping up with your Netflix. Suddenly to have access to the internet as a whole requires 5 different bundle purchases, and as a business, your clients may not even have the service required to view your website.
As of now, the major American ISPs have made commitments not to do this to their clients. But those commitments are as flexible as your iTunes User Agreements, which no one has ever read in full, and as far as we know, we may have already signed over our houses to Apple. Those agreements can change at any time.
Maybe everyone is overreacting to the repeal of Net Neutrality. After all, the internet flourished without Net Neutrality rules before 2015. Why should things be any different? But what is so different about today is that the internet is already being stifled because the big net giants like Google and Facebook already dominate our time. The Gold Rush is in many ways already over. But if fledgling startups are to have a chance to compete with the biggest companies around, they have to be able to serve their content on a level playing field. Maybe American ISPs won’t actually take advantage of this repeal, and new companies will continue to have equal opportunity. But if they do, it will be high time for small and medium sized businesses to start brainstorming yet another way to stand out.