On Tuesday, the The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District Columbia Circuit said the FCC doen't doesn't have the authority to enforce its net neutrality rules. The ISPs and carriers typically maintain that net neutrality is a government plot to stifle networking investment.
ISPs want to crush net neutrality so they can wring a few more dollars out of sweetheart deals with rich content and service providers (or give a boost to their own content and services). They claim they need to do this to make their network investments worthwhile.
That's hogwash. It's also shortsighted -- even for the carriers.
No shortage of profits
There's plenty of money to be made selling network access as it is. (I personally contribute well over $100 per month for wired and wireless Internet access.) How much does your company pay for your workers' Internet access and to make your websites and apps available online? Even if you're not a Web company, I'm guessing it's not a trivial amount.
We spend that cash because the Internet gives everyone access to a cornucopia of content and services and apps -- all just a click or a swipe away. Critically, that swipe or click or tap doesn't usually come with a mental hesitation over "how much is this going to cost me?" Sure, we may have bandwidth caps, especially on mobile broadband, but they're generic and usually high enough that we don't have to weigh the costs of every little thing we do online. Even if we do think about the cost, the only question is whether or not to do something, not the details of how we do it.
But if net neutrality goes the way of floppy disks, using the Internet will eventually become a lot more complex and anxiety-inducing for many people:
- Will watching this video cost me extra on my monthly Net access bill?
- What if I go over to this site, where it's slower, but maybe cheaper?
- Should I use this app -- inferior though it may be -- because it downloads faster or won't cost me as much?
- Or maybe I should just stay home and watch TV?
That last question is the key. If we make Internet access more costly and more complicated, many people may choose to go online less often. That would be bad for everyone: consumers, app developers, content creators, enterprises and small businesses, and yes, the carriers and ISPs as well. And that's just the consumer side. Life for businesses that depend on the Internet will also get more difficult and costly, in ways that are difficult to predict.
(Yes, I know I wrote last week that I don't have a problem with AT&T's Sponsored Data Plan deals -- 3 reasons AT&T's sponsored data plan isn't the end of the world -- but that's a bit different. Offering incentives is one thing, but without net neutrality rules, do you really think we won't see surcharges and lowered limits and other unpleasant attempts to get users to pay more for less?)
Be careful what you wish for...
These effects won't happen overnight. And they're likely to be gradual and incremental, so we may not notice them right away. But the potential for real and lasting damage to the internet economy can't be ignored.
So Verizon, which brought the suit that led to this Appeals Court decision, and all the other carriers and ISPs hoping for the death of net neutrality should be careful what they wish for. They just might get it.