The internet as we know it in America is about to fundamentally change, and it’s because our politics are too broken to stop it.
On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Communications Commission is about to issue new rules for internet service providers that will allow them to create “fast lanes” of service that will allow companies like Netflix and Amazon to deliver their content faster than competitors. That’s a first for American internet policy, and it’s strictly against the rules in other countries, particularly in Europe.
Allowing big companies to pay for prioritized access to consumers flies in the face of the internet’s egalitarian ideals, which allow anyone or any company free access to a vibrant market free of tolls or restrictions — allow service providers like Comcast and AT&T to start creating artificial barriers to entry, and you make it harder for the next generation of college kids to start the next Facebook or Google. As a whole, the various rules that protect these ideals are generally called net neutrality — they’re the rules that say your service provider has to treat all internet traffic equally, and shouldn’t be allowed to block, degrade, or enhance access to certain websites or services.
It was actually illegal for service providers to create fast lanes in the US until January, when an appeals court struck down the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet rules after a lengthy court battle with Verizon. The 2010 rules were a big deal — President Obama even made the open internet a part of his 2008 campaign platform, saying “I’ll take a backseat to no one in my commitment to net neutrality.”