It has been an incredibly newsy week — and it’s not over yet.
Tax reform is ramping up in the U.S. Senate, President Trump had another Twitter meltdown, an aggressive North Korea fired another missile, and a continuous stream of men are losing their jobs because of their harassment of women.
As important as those issues are, history may show the end of internet neutrality in the United States outranks them all.
Consider that the internet has been the bastion of much of the country’s economic growth of the last two decades. Sure, there were bubbles and dead ends along the road. But the Amazons, Facebooks and Googles — now some of the most powerful and richest companies in the world, were little more than gleams in their founders’ eyes just 20 years ago. Much of what is now one of the richest and most powerful regions of the country — Silicon Valley — was little more than a suburban academic setting that few people had ever heard of.
Granted, much of the economic muscle created by the new online behemoths came at the expense of the brick-and-mortars, the analogs and the manufacturers.
But there is no doubting the fact that much of this country’s economic fortunes have been dependent on the enormous growth of many internet entrepreneurs and startup companies, which have made our world both better and worse.
So that is what is at stake: The last, great libertarian frontier of entrepreneurship free from government intervention and the constraints of our physical world.
The threat is net neutrality.
Although that term and the issue can seem like a rather complicated concept, it doesn’t have to be.
Picture it this way: Right now, you access the internet to view websites or stream video at pretty much the same speed as everyone else.
The companies that built the internet must treat all traffic exactly the same, no matter where it is headed or how it got there.
From many internet service providers’ perspective, net neutrality is an unfair burden that limits their ability to recoup the cost of development. These ISPs have made significant investments in the online infrastructure, and they believe they should be able to monetize their investment into more revenue and higher returns for their shareholders.
For instance, if the government allowed it, ISPs could soon be able to sell a faster connection to certain destinations for certain customers. For Facebook, that could be a good thing. You could load their site faster and at lower cost than you could the next social network that comes along, which does not have the financial wherewithal to pay AT&T or Comcast or whoever to fast-track traffic to their site.
It’s the same on the consumer side. If you rely solely on the big boys — the entrenched interests with the biggest pockets — perhaps you will be content with a slightly cheaper internet that restricts and throttles your traffic elsewhere. But if you wish to go somewhere on the internet where your provider has little financial stake in you visiting, prepare for it to be slower and more expensive.
Ending net neutrality is bad for entrepreneurship. It’s bad for the next new thing. It’s bad for consumers, too, who want fair competition for their time and their traffic and their dollars.
Current corporate giants stand to benefit greatly if net neutrality comes to a end. Their power to restrict competition and promote their own interests is increased considerably.
The internet will become just another shopping mall that shuffles its customers to the sites it approves, and where it stands to make a bigger buck.
A lifeless mall would be a sad way for the most important and dynamic economic innovation in the last century to end up.