The EU rejected protection for net neutrality on Tuesday, opening the door for companies to pay for so-called “fast lanes” on the internet that will bring their content and services to users faster relative to other content on the web.
That may sound like a good thing at first. It means people in the EU could get content and services from companies at faster speeds or more reliable connections.
But it’s a dangerous step toward an internet dominated by big, rich companies that can afford to pay internet service providers (ISPs) for fast lanes, which could in turn stifle innovation from scrappy startups and smaller companies trying to compete.
Net neutrality is the concept that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally. Under strict net neutrality rules, companies would not be able to pay ISPs to deliver content faster to customers. Everything would be delivered at the same speed.
That’s the ideal situation. The internet is becoming the primary way we get news, entertainment, and so much else. It enabled entrepreneurs to create multibillion dollar companies. Google. Facebook. Amazon. Yahoo. And so on. These companies not only made a bunch of smart people rich but also enrich the lives of their users. We’re able to communicate, shop, share, and collaborate much better than we ever could before the internet. And we’re just getting started. The internet is still relatively young, and we’ve barely tapped into its potential.
But rules allowing for fast lanes on the internet have the potential to stifle that kind of innovation. The big, rich companies that can afford fast lanes have a leg up over smaller companies trying to become the next Facebook or Google or Amazon, potentially limiting the creation of a new, innovative service we can all benefit from.
Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with creating the world wide web, put it best in a blog post on Monday, before the EU voted on the rules:
“If adopted as currently written, these rules will threaten innovation, free speech and privacy, and compromise Europe’s ability to lead in the digital economy,” Berners-Lee wrote.
In short, competition is good for creating an environment that encourages affordable, innovative products, which in turn is good consumers and a country’s economy. But internet rules that allow fast lanes have the potential to stifle that competition. There’s no evidence that it’s happening yet, but the slope is slippery enough to allow big companies to throw a wet blanket on any true innovation on the internet as it evolves.
On the other hand, the EU’s rules don’t allow ISPs to slow down content from companies that don’t pay for fast lanes. It’s better than nothing, and addresses early complaints net neutrality advocates had, but it’s not good enough. It doesn’t matter if enough companies pay for fast lanes in order to stomp out potential competitors.
The current EU rules give rich companies the option to exert more control over the internet. That’s good for them, but bad for you and the internet as a whole.
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