Net neutrality has been a hot topic in recent months, one with a lot of emotional baggage and rhetoric that makes it difficult to follow the core issues. I’m not going to attempt to unravel things here; after all, it is a topic of hundreds of research papers over the last decade, so it would take more than a short blog post to really get into the issues. Rather, I want to make a simple point that is often missed.
We are in the middle of a large-scale experiment on the impact of net neutrality, and the effects of a loss of net neutrality have proven disastrous.
Why do I say this? Well, net neutrality has never existed for mobile devices, so by comparing the mobile experience (and contracting) with the wired world, we can already observe the consequences of giving up net neutrality, and they are clearly worrisome.
In particular: in the last few years, we have seen huge growth in mobile companies prioritizing certain traffic over others for consumers through the mechanism of “sponsored data.” That is, data from certain apps does not count against your plan, while data from competing apps does. For example, T-Mobile allows data from specific “popular” streaming apps to not count against your plan. Sprint has gone even further, and is marketing apps as if they are “channels,” where you can choose to get access to Facebook, Twitter, etc. on a per-app basis.
These sort of plans are being pitched as “consumer-friendly,” but the reality is that they are trying to turn the internet into cable tv, which is a disaster for innovation. As this sort of thing becomes increasingly pervasive, low-income mobile users will no longer be able to afford an open internet, and will instead only be offered a select few apps. New app designers will need to negotiate a deal with a carrier before ever launching. And so, as quickly as it began, the amazing startup culture surrounding mobile apps will disappear.
This sort of event is exactly what the academic community has been predicting about the demise of net neutrality for a decade, so it’s not surprising at all. And, after the demise of net neutrality in the wired world, it took no time at all for the effects to begin to happen there as well (as evidenced by Netflix’s contracts with the major ISPs).
So, when discussing this issue with your friends, colleagues, and representatives, remember: the impacts of a loss of net neutrality are not debatable — we are observing them today. Without it, the open internet will just accelerate its convergence into a cable-tv-like stagnation where the “internet” is a plaything available only for those rich enough to afford it, and developers can only innovate if they can afford to pay off the big guys.