The end of net neutrality?

The World Wide Web party may be over. If proposed regulations from the FCC become the law of the land, they will close the open bar that has allowed digital information to flow freely over the Internet.

They will effectively kill the concept of net neutrality. They will end the Internet boom, threaten free speech and stifle innovations from streaming media services to self-driving cars.

Net neutrality is essentially the situation under which the Internet and World Wide Web began. All traffic – video, text, email, whatever – was treated as equal digital packets. Essentially, no packet received better treatment than any other; there was no discrimination.

Paying for faster access will effectively kill off companies that can’t pay. It's a decision whose repercussions could ripple across the economy.

But now the FCC is proposing to end that equality, and with it the equal access currently granted to consumers.

Under the proposed new rules, which will be open for public comment on May 15, the FCC will allow Internet service providers such as AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon to charge websites and online services, from Sony to Netflix, additional fees to get better, faster access to their Internet pipes. It would create a tiered system in which some sites could reach consumers more easily than others.

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The FCC tried to stop such arrangements – deals in which fees and charges are hidden from the public – but lost when a federal appeals court  said it does not have the authority to make such regulations because the Internet is not considered a utility under federal law.

Paying for faster access will effectively kill off companies that can’t pay. Consumers will naturally chose to use, say, an Internet search engine that takes just a few seconds to deliver a result over one that takes half a minute. The same goes for just about every other conceivable site. It's a decision whose repercussions could ripple across the economy:

It will end consumer choice
You will not be able to select which services you want to receive more quickly. You will not, for example, be able to choose to have a better connection to streaming video from Amazon over Netflix, or vice versa. No matter how much more you are willing to pay each month for a faster Internet connection, it will not change the fact that some services work well while others wallow with balky connections and tardy speeds.

It will stifle innovation
Small companies have been leveraging the Internet for years because they were treated equally and could attract customers and grow rapidly. All that was needed was a good idea and some sweat equity. Now, they will also need a lot of money to pay Internet service providers. Consequently, there will be fewer startups and fewer opportunities for new businesses.

It will stymie  autonomous cars
The self-driving car, the goal of technology to end needless deaths on the highway and bring about a less congested, more fuel efficient vehicular future, relies on a myriad of devices, sensors and communications services to achieve its full potential. While autonomous vehicles can traverse roads without communicating, the ultimate goal is to have cars talking to each other, warning of impending collisions and smoothing the traffic flow. Some of that data will be sent directly, from car to car, but some of it will rely on fast Internet connections that companies like Verizon and AT&T may decide don't deserve priority because they haven't paid up.

It threatens the First Amendment
If a company can pay more to get better, faster, more reliable access to consumers and citizens, it will squeeze out smaller, impecunious sources of information and speech. There will be fewer dissenting voices online, fewer chances for an open discussion of important issues.

It threatens religious freedom
Discrimination will be effectively codified by the FCC proposal. Any ISP could decide not to allow a legal website or organization from gaining faster access to its service. One spiritual organization could get preference over another, enabling it to reach more people and drown out opposing spiritual views.

It will increase bills to consumers
Netflix has made clear that it will pass on the increased fees it pays to consumers. You can expect other companies, from music services to gigantic online retailers like Amazon, to be forced to pass along these expenses as well (indeed, Amazon has already raised its annual fee for Prime to $99). Bills could rise exponentially as each service charges more. How much more is difficult to say, because the financial terms of these deals are kept secret.

It will lead to a monopolistic Internet
Merged firms, such as the proposed marriage of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, will exert greater control over what goes over their cables and fiber, allowing them to dominate with their own content (although the new FCC rules dictate that when they favor their own sites, they must say so publicly). In other words, the Golf Channel may come in clearly on your TV, while the Tennis Channel is blurry and sputters.

Ostensibly, the FCC's excuse for this about-face is lethargy. The agency says it's pinioned by the courts, and it's just too difficult to craft new rules that might protect network neutrality.

But they need to try harder.

The obvious solution is to change the law, something Congress must do. The idea that the pipes – wired or wireless – that deliver the Internet to hundreds of millions of Americans and provide the supporting infrastructure for so much technology do not constitute a utility is antiquated at best, idiotic at worst.