If Net Neutrality Dies, Is This What the Future of the Internet Will Look Like?

Opponents of “fast lanes” turn to video-game avatars to get their doomsday message out.

NoSlowLane.com / YouTube
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
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Kaveh Waddell
May 27, 2014, 1 a.m.

The fu­ture of the In­ter­net is a dysto­pia run by the world’s biggest, richest com­pan­ies.

That’s the way the Pro­gress­ive Change Cam­paign Com­mit­tee sees it, call­ing a scen­ario where net neut­ral­ity fails “like liv­ing in the lag­gi­est game you’ve ever played.”

In a video aimed at gamers, a spunky avatar sends a warn­ing from the year 2084 to ex­plain that the de­cision to forgo net neut­ral­ity “killed star­tups and com­pet­i­tion.”

“All we have left,” she la­ments, “is the junk that big cor­por­a­tions want us to see.”

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The ar­gu­ment isn’t new. But for all the dooms­day rhet­or­ic sur­round­ing net neut­ral­ity — Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., a lead­er in the fight for net neut­ral­ity, calls the is­sue “the most im­port­ant First Amend­ment is­sue of our time” — such a fiery hell­s­cape is un­likely.

That’s be­cause the ma­ligned Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion has op­ted to lay out a vague frame­work on net neut­ral­ity that would leave it with a great deal of lat­it­ude to en­force neut­ral­ity rules — or not. FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er would have rules en­forced on a “case-by-case basis” rather than cre­at­ing a ri­gid struc­ture that could stifle the In­ter­net’s nat­ur­al evol­u­tion and growth.

Be­sides, the In­ter­net is hardly a level play­ing field today. Al­though the FCC’s pro­posed “fast lanes” — which would al­low In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders to slow traffic to web­sites that don’t pay for spe­cial ser­vice — don’t yet ex­ist, many bar­ri­ers already stand in the way of star­tups’ entry in­to the high-band­width on­line world. Large con­tent pro­viders like Google and Face­book pay for con­tent-de­liv­ery net­works that ease the bur­den caused by high traffic. This al­lows them to host more pho­tos and videos, and de­liv­er them more quickly to large num­bers of users.

Al­though an FCC de­cision that strikes down net neut­ral­ity could ex­acer­bate this in­equal­ity, it is un­likely to plunge the In­ter­net in­to the cor­por­ate-owned abyss. Even 70 years from now.

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