The development of the Internet and the explosion of broadband innovation was a direct result of strong regulation against discrimination. The Internet we know today exists because broadband networks have been regulated since their inception, and continued regulation will protect everyone’s ability to innovate and communicate online.
But the current debate is not an academic discussion about whether or not broadband networks should be regulated in the abstract. Instead, it is a very specific debate about allowing fast lanes and slow lanes to develop on the Internet. Only regulation can prevent that from happening.
We can be sure that today’s regulations are the only thing preventing service providers from breaking the Internet into fast lanes and slow lanes. When it was suing the Federal Communications Commission to overturn the last set of net neutrality rules, Verizon assured the court that “but for these rules” they would already be looking for ways to force some people and services into a fast lane.
One of the saddest parts of a fast lane/slow lane Internet is that many of us simply won’t know what we are missing. Startups without funding do not file a notice with the Department of What Could Have Been – they just disappear. No one knew they needed Facebook, Twitter or YouTube before they appeared, although they would surely be missed if they vanished today. And, without getting a chance to use tomorrow’s new technology, most of us won’t know what we missed.
That desire by Internet Service Providers to turn the open Internet into a space where they get to decide who succeeds and who fails (and collect their toll in the process) is exactly what regulation of broadband networks has always been about. The basic rule that the company that connects you to the Internet must treat all of your traffic equally has been in place in some form since 2005.
Allowing ISPs to pick winners and losers online would be a change of course, and a big blow to the openness of the Internet, which has allowed, for example, a company started in a dorm room to compete with large established players. It has also meant that small blogs could take a place beside massive media outlets, that anyone could become a video star, and that disparate communities could find themselves online. All of this has been possible because regulations guaranteed that there was one Internet for everyone.
With a fast lane, the question of success switches from “How compelling is your offering?” to “Can you afford to pay to get into the fast lane?” Unfortunately, plenty of websites, applications and ideas that succeed with the first question fail with the second.
Furthermore, without a push from these new innovative services, it is less likely that our Internet infrastructure will feel pressured to improve in the same way. That means a slowing of innovation in the network itself and a gradual freeze of the Internet at 2014 levels.
Finally, there will be communities who will never even get access to the fast lane. If providers are forced to pay for access to the fast lane, then they will start making sure that the investment is worth it. Why pay for nationwide fast lane service if you only care about operating in the 70 highest-income ZIP codes in the country? Today, everyone with a connection can access the real Internet. Tomorrow, we could easily see a widening of the digital divide, where entire communities are left out of the fast lane altogether.