Clicking on a video, whether it’s of global significance or more in the “Kitten Meets Hedgehog” vein, we expect the same fast download and smooth play from YouTube and the scrappy startups down the virtual street. That’s the beauty of the Internet. It provides a free, simple framework that anyone can build on, and “it treats all traffic that flows across the network in roughly the same way,” according to the FCC, which is on the verge of losing this precious “net neutrality.”
Really long story short, the FCC is struggling to hammer out rules for the Open Internet amid a political firestorm pitting content providers like Google and Netflix against service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Verizon. The latter are the pipeline to users, and they’ve been fighting the FCC’s attempts to regulate them for years. And winning. It matters because the compromise on the table would allow ISPs to charge for content prioritization in an Internet “fast lane.” Facebook has the money, but those scrappy startups might have a hard time offering the same quality (or surviving at all).
“Take it from the standpoint of the thing you don’t know you need yet,” says Andy White, a VegasTechFund partner and part of a vocal contingent in the tech community putting pressure on the FCC to take a stand. “Before you had YouTube, you didn’t know it was going to be an important thing to you, and that’s what we’re concerned with—a small startup’s ability to create and compete in this marketplace if the cost of doing that goes up.”
White believes a “pay-to-play” environment would discourage entrepreneurs and investors from shaking up the status quo, leaving the door open for monopolies and eroding innovation. And the scary implications aren’t just about commerce. If certain content gets favored, it could be at the cost of other voices and viewpoints.
That’s why it’s vital, White says, to take advantage of the FCC’s 3-2 vote last week to open things up for public comment/outrage. Without it, the commission will have little ammo to push back against lobbyists and lawmakers representing the interests of ISPs, which are not technically utilities (that’s a story in itself) and therefore don’t have to play in the same non-discriminatory sandbox.
“This is our own country saying, ‘We prioritize the needs of these big companies over the needs of the smaller ones and the rest of you that are using the Internet.’ The good part is, there’s a lot more of us than there are of them,” White says, “and now’s our time to show that this is important to us.” He recommends calling your representatives (a lot), and emailing your thoughts about access to international news and cat videos to firstname.lastname@example.org.