Net neutrality is a dead man walking. The execution date isn’t set, but it could be days, or months (at best). And since net neutrality is the principle forbidding huge telecommunications companies from treating users, websites, or apps differently — say, by letting some work better than others over their pipes — the dead man walking isn’t some abstract or far-removed principle just for wonks: It affects the internet as we all know it.
Once upon a time, companies like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and others declared a war on the internet’s foundational principle: that its networks should be “neutral” and users don’t need anyone’s permission to invent, create, communicate, broadcast, or share online. The neutral and level playing field provided by permissionless innovation has empowered all of us with the freedom to express ourselves and innovate online without having to seek the permission of a remote telecom executive.
But today, that freedom won’t survive much longer if a federal court — the second most powerful court in the nation behind the Supreme Court, the DC Circuit — is set to strike down the nation’s net neutrality law, a rule adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 2010. Some will claim the new solution “splits the baby” in a way that somehow doesn’t kill net neutrality and so we should be grateful. But make no mistake: Despite eight years of public and political activism by multitudes fighting for freedom on the internet, a court decision may soon take it away.
The implications of such a decision would be profound. Web and mobile companies will live or die not on the merits of their technology and design, but on the deals they can strike with AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and others. This means large phone and cable companies will be able to “shakedown” startups and established companies in every sector, requiring payment for reliable service. In fact, during the oral argument in the current case, Verizon’s lawyer said, “I’m authorized to state from my client today that but for these [FCC] rules we would be exploring those types of arrangements.”
Wait, it gets even worse. Pricing isn’t even a necessary forcing factor. Once the court voids the nondiscrimination rule, AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast will be able to deliver some sites and services more quickly and reliably than others for any reason. Whim. Envy. Ignorance. Competition. Vengeance. Whatever. Or, no reason at all.
So what if you’ve got a great new company, an amazing group of founders, a seat in a reputable accelerator program, great investors and mentors. With the permission-based innovation over “our pipes” desired from the likes of Comcast, Verizon and AT&T… there’s no meritocracy here.
Of course, despite everything the judges suggested during the two-hour argument, it’s possible that they offer net neutrality a reprieve. Given how sticky this morass is, there’s one simple way for you to judge the opinion: If the court throws out the non-discrimination rule, permission-less innovation on the internet as we know it is done. If the nondiscrimination rule miraculously survives, then, for now at least, so too will freedom on the internet.