slow lane
Discussion Point

What's at Stake With Net Neutrality?

9 minute read
Siobhan Fagan avatar

When Ajit Pai assumed the role of Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in January, he made one of his goals clear: dismantling the net neutrality rules put in place in 2015. 

This surprised no one.

As a member of the FCC, Pai voted against the Open Internet Order (pdf), which includes the principles of net neutrality. In December 2016, he proclaimed net neutrality's "days are numbered." 

And so in May, the FCC took the first step in rolling back the rules.

A Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality

The Open Internet Order prohibits internet service providers (ISP) from blocking or slowing the delivery of content to consumers. It in effect categorizes internet service as a utility, which means it is open to regulation, rather than a luxury.

Today some of the largest companies on the internet — Google, Amazon, Mozilla, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Spotify and more — are joining ranks with activists and concerned citizens to protest the rollback. What form the day of action will take is still unclear, but expect to see simulations of what an internet divided into slow lanes and fast lanes would feel like as well as pushes to leave comments for the FCC in support of net neutrality during these last days of open comment. 

We at CMSWire support the day of action. As a content provider, and more importantly, as consumers and as citizens we believe unfettered access to the internet is both a utility and a necessity to function as a society.

To get a clearer picture of what's at stake, we asked several people what the loss of net neutrality would mean in the long term, but perhaps a better question comes from world wide web inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee: "What sort of a web do we want?"

The Question

What long-term effects would the loss of net neutrality have on the web as we know it?

The Answers

Alex Howard, Deputy Director of Sunlight Foundation

Alex Howard
Alexander B. Howard is the deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, where he leads policy initiatives, civic engagement, strategic advocacy, watchdog journalism and government reform efforts. Previously, he was a senior analyst at Sunlight, where he led the foundation’s federal transparency work.Howard has been recognized twice by The Washingtonian Magazine as one of Washington’s “TechTitans,” which called him a “respected trend-spotter and chronicler of government’s use of new media.” Tweet to @digiphile

We believe an informed public is essential to an accountable democratic government.That’s one reason we’re strong opponents of internet shutdowns and it’s a reason why we are supporters of net neutrality principles, because we view them as being essential for a healthy democracy in the 21st century. 

We see it as a set of principles, much like the ones that had been agreed on in consensus-based discussions going back for a decade. And the rules that were mandated by the last FTC had some basic guidance here: no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization and transparency about how these rules are being applied to internet service providers. 

We think it is appropriate for there to be a government regulator that has oversight of internet service providers. That the transparency regarding how people are accessing information, sharing information, that is now an expectation of the public should not be something that is voluntary. Because we have not seen telecommunications companies historically be entirely proactive about disclosing those conditions or what they might be doing to shape or block or throttle or prioritize.

We don’t want to see the internet, which is the greatest platform for collective action in human history, turned into a cable box. We want to see open standards and open access to a commons, that’s created by the government, sharing the public’s information so the public can benefit from it. 

What we do know is that access to the internet has become an essential service for hundreds and millions of Americans, and billions of people around the world. Other countries — even the EU as a collective — have enacted strong net neutrality rules because they want to make sure that that access is something that the public, who is served by it, has insight into, and that the providers of it have some expectations of what kind of behaviors are allowable and which are not. And the expectation is that there will be disclosure and transparency around them. 

It’s too important to simply tear up rules that were formed in the open, and voted upon, without there being a set of bills to come in and replace that. 

If there is no one who is entrusted with making sure that internet service providers are being open and transparent and accountable about how they are providing that access to the public, our expectation is that we’ll see a devolvement of the public sphere where people have differential access based on how much money they have. And that would be a profound loss for our democracy.

Corynne McSherry, Legal Director of EFF

Corynne McSherry
Corynne McSherry is the Legal Director at EFF, specializing in intellectual property, open access, and free speech issues. Her favorite cases involve defending online fair use, political expression, and the public domain against the assault of copyright maximalists. As a litigator, she has represented Professor Lawrence Lessig, Public.Resource.Org, the Yes Men, and a dancing baby, among others, and one of her first cases at EFF was In re Sony BMG CD Technologies Litigation (aka the "rootkit" case). Tweet to @cmcsherr

Learning Opportunities

Net neutrality is under assault once again, with the Federal Communications Commission looking to reverse the 2015 Open Internet Order by stripping away its legal foundations. 

That’s right: less than two years after the FCC finally adopted a legally viable Open Internet Order, and less than one year after the courts finally upheld real net neutrality protections, the new FCC Chair, Ajit Pai, has put those protections on the chopping block. If he succeeds, broadband service providers will be free to create Internet fast lanes for those who can afford them — meaning slow lanes for anyone who can’t pay to play, like startups offering innovative services, not to mention libraries, schools, and nonprofits. They will also be free to steer you to the content they choose — often without you knowing it.

Deb Lavoy, Founder and CEO of Narrative Builders

Deb Lavoy
Deb Lavoy is the founder and CEO of Narrative Builders — a consultancy that helps organizations build narratives that convey the power of their business, product or idea. She has been in the business of online, social and digital business for more than two decades. Lavoy has been everything from an engineer to VP of marketing at startups and venerable enterprises. She writes as a way to express her delight in connecting the dots between business, technology, science, literature and society. Tweet to @deb_lavoy

Let’s make this simple and say we’re talking about electricity. All businesses depend on it, as do nearly all citizens. Let’s say the electric company could decide, based on its own criteria, that Business A gets charged one amount and another Business B is charged double or more. Let’s further suppose that the electric company felt beholden to the kind regulatory agency, and its master, that gave it this delicious power.   

What would that mean?

  • It means that the electric company has a lot of power over what businesses can survive. Say the company that makes solar panels needs some electricity to build them? It means the electric company can kill its competitors and shape the market according to its own whims
  • It means that if, say, the New York Times suggests that perhaps there should be Electricity Neutrality, it could put the New York Times out of business
  • It means, that the next great idea or service or technology that needed electricity might never happen

Now make the obvious substitution. Net neutrality is a strict requirement for capitalism. It prevents existing monopolies from taking over the entire economy. It leaves room for innovation, and it prevents both industry and the government from censorship.

Net metering would skew the business and media environment fundamentally. There is no way to grant this power to regulate internet consumption in such a way that it cannot be abused. And there is no way we should entrust the foundation of 21st century business and democracy to either business or the existing regulatory powers. The internet must remain a neutral platform for all. Net Neutrality is the bulwark against censorship and the most vital force behind tech and business innovation. Let’s not screw it up.

Stowe Boyd, Managing Director, Another Voice; Editor in Chief/Publisher Work Futures; Contributing Editor, Traction Technology Partners 

Stowe Boyd
Stowe Boyd is an internationally recognized futurist, analyst and researcher. He is managing director, Another Voice, rethinking research for the new economy. His approach is to combine research, analytic and conjectural frameworks, and futures scenarios and other tools to help clients answer their most strategic questions.His general focus is the future of work, and the tectonic forces pushing business, media and society into an unclear and accelerating postnormal era. Tweet to @stoweboyd

The direct impacts arising from a loss of net neutrality are exactly what the tech world is putting on display on Net Neutrality Day. 

Images on website won't load, the Steven Colbert interview with Andy Serkis doesn't buffer well and Twitter seems slow as molasses. That's the likely impact on users if the FCC rescinds former rules that prohibit throttling of web services by ISPs. 

The indirect effects would ultimately be worse. ISPs would have the upper hand with web services. Comcast could demand greater payments from Netflix, Verizon could hold YouTube hostage, and the money would flow from those actually providing the services — like Amazon's streaming I Love Dick, or CNN's nightly news — to the companies who bring the signal to our homes and workplaces. Fairly quickly, those creating the services would have to charge more or produce less. And the users would ultimately pay the price. 

So it's basically a scheme to extort more money from people at the end of the pipe. Us.

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