The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), headed by the uniquely irritating Ajit Pai, recently voted to overturn Obama-era net neutrality regulations. This is not particularly surprising given the current president’s manic desire to remove everything associated with Obama and his cabinet’s obsessive impulse to pander to the worst impulses in American business. The net neutrality protections existed to prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from providing unequal access to the internet through the creation of fast lanes for those who could afford to pay for them and through choking out sites that provide services that compete with their own. They could also cause searches to redirect to their preferred sites and thereby restrict choices and access to information.For example, if completely fictional ISP Bombast decided it would rather its customers watch its own movie streaming service rather than Netflix, it could significantly slow down the delivery of Netflix’s content so that it became unwatchable, thereby forcing people to subscribe to its streaming video provider. It could, in addition or instead, charge Netflix a hefty sum to continue to have fast lane access, and if we know anything about how companies pay for increased operating costs, we know they are passed on to the consumer. Even if the consumer would have paid the extra money, their search for “streaming movie services” may not direct them toward Netflix at all, but instead be designed to redirect to Bombast’s preferred (read: financially beneficial) service. The idea that consumer dissatisfaction would prevent something such as this from occurring is undermined by the fact that approximately 100 million Americans live in areas where they have only one ISP available.
Now, companies such as the completely fictional Bombast have promised that they would never do such a thing as throttle or block. It’s a bit like the fox promising that it just wants to count the hens and that the creation of regulations to prevent it from counting them by swallowing them would really only work against the fox’s creative accounting techniques.
Given that only the delusional believe that companies will act against their monetary interests for the greater good of the public, the removal of these protections creates a situation in which power, this time over the internet, is consolidated in the hands of those who will exercise it to bring themselves greater wealth. What this will mean for the internet’s users is fairly clear: restricted choices, higher costs, and less input. Increased costs will further restrict access by those with the fewest resources at their disposal and this is problematic because the internet is not just a place for entertainment, but a basic utility for existing in today’s society. I have a job because I have access to the internet, people use it to connect with friends and family, it’s the primary portal for people to sign up for health insurance, check their bank accounts, pay bills, keep tabs on their kids’ school grades and activities, get news, and look for information. It is no longer a recreational add-on, but rather a fundamental part of our daily lives.
The consumer is not the only one that will suffer if net neutrality protections are removed. While large ISPs stand to benefit through additional fees, and big companies, such as Netflix, can afford to pay them, small companies may not have the funds to pay for fast lane access and find themselves unable to compete in the provision of internet based services. It is here that the 3D printing company Shapeways has added their voice to the overwhelming number of people and organizations that oppose the removal of these protections, adding to the growing conversation among tech companies, and continuing to offer its support for net neutrality by building on previous public statements and formally filed comments.
As company CEO Tom Finn explained in an opinion piece written for The New York Daily News:
“My company, Shapeways, gives anyone with an internet connection access to 3D printing technology. We allow everyone to turn digital files into objects made of materials such as ultra-high-detail plastic, porcelain, steel, and even gold. Our marketplace allows entrepreneurs and designers to open shops and sell those independently created, 3D-printed objects to customers around the world…But we need a level playing field in order to be able to compete.”
Think of it this way. Imagine if a big box retailer were allowed to burn down small businesses that they viewed as competitors. If you still wanted to start a business, you could purchase expensive fire protection policies that would mark your business as off-limits to those arson-prone retail giants, but the costs, especially coming at a time when profits are their slimmest, made the capital risks too great. Pai would likely support such fire setting allowance in the name of a reduction of regulations, but the end result would be the removal of competition by creating a suffocating environment for small business, further concentration of capital and power in the hands of large corporations, and a reduction in offerings for the consumer combined with an increase in price.
The conversation on the surface in American politics has long been one that purports to support starting and growing small businesses. However, decisions such as the one to remove net neutrality regulations do exactly the opposite. If ISPs are charging for access to the fast lane, the slow lane will have to be unbearably slow and since companies, such as Netflix, can afford to pay big to benefit big, the price for fast lane access will not be affordable for those starting small businesses. This means that either you will have to be wealthy in order to start a small business or you will simply not start one at all.Finn also points out that it’s not just the quantity of small business startups that will be reduced, but the overall amount of innovation by and for American markets will be negatively impacted. If Shapeways had launched in the time after the removal of these protections, ISPs could have seen a successful model, slowed down and restricted access to the site, built their own 3D printing service and suffocated Shapeways in its infancy. Whereas with the regulations it would have to create an on-demand 3D printing service that won over Shapeways’ clients through the provision of superior service, post net neutrality, it wouldn’t have to be particularly concerned about the quality of its offerings because it could simply become the only offering. In Finn’s words:
“Without net neutrality protections, ISPs would simply be able to wait for us to prove the viability of our model, and then create their own 3D printing services. Once they have their own version of our product, those ISPs could decide to block or throttle access to us, or even redirect traffic to their own services instead. With the flick of a switch, our factory in Long Island City would have nothing left to print.”
Not only does that have a crushing effect on small businesses, those are American jobs that are being lost as well. As big businesses ship their jobs overseas or replace workers with automated services, the American economy could benefit from the jobs provided through small businesses.
The FCC’s vote, 3 to 2 to dismantle the protections, is nothing more than an effort to give a gift to big ISPs at the expense of everybody else and an abdication of the FCC’s responsibility to keep the internet fair. Pai, 45, and cronies either naively believe that given the chance to regulate themselves, big companies will choose to sacrifice potential profit for the high moral ground or they cynically believe that the American people don’t deserve even the economic scraps and that they are too stupid to understand that. If you need any further evidence that it’s the latter, simply watch the epically tone deaf video he created mocking people’s concerns by suggesting that there was no need to worry since people would still be able to ‘gram’ their food pics and upload photos of their puppies.
The removal of these protections will work against the democratization of technology that is a cornerstone of 3D printing culture. And the fact that this has moved forward despite the demonstration that the overwhelming majority of Americans oppose their removal shows how corroded our own democratic institutions have become. This isn’t a lost cause, however, Congress can still take appropriate actions to ensure the continuation of a free and fair internet.
Finn concludes his public plea:
“Over the past decade, FCC commissioners from both parties have expressed a commitment to protecting the open internet. A recent poll revealed that 85% of Americans do not approve of the FCC’s decision to eliminate net neutrality protections. That is why we, and tech companies like us, are asking Congress to take the steps necessary to protect an open internet. Congress needs to make clear that it stands behind a fair, open internet that ensures a level playing field for everyone.”
The time to stand up for net neutrality is now and the reasons to do so are compelling. Let’s put out this fire before it starts. Read Finn’s statement, “Why My Company Needs Net Neutrality,” in full here; the FCC’s statement from the day of the vote is here.
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