The internet in America is under attack, and the threat comes from a rather unlikely source: the United States Government.
On December 14th, Federal Communications Commision Chairman Ajit Pai will lead the FCC in a vote to eliminate net neutrality rules, a set of regulations designed to keep the power of large-scale internet service providers (ISPs) in check, and prohibit them from creating “fast” and “slow” lanes for internet users. Without the limitations of net neutrality, ISPs like Verizon could significantly change the way we experience the internet in America, favoring certain businesses and websites that can pay for faster service, while discriminating against others. In the end, a repeal of net neutrality is a win for large corporations, at the expense of small businesses and the average consumer.
But there are forces mobilizing in opposition to this potentially devastating repeal. Just this week, a group of high profile senators sent a letter to Chairman Pai and the FCC, objecting to the organization's proposed rollbacks of net neutrality protections. Consumers across America have also been vocal in their opposition to Chairman Pai’s plan, lodging over 22 million messages on the FCC’s website. And though large ISPs like Comcast and AT&T stand to benefit significantly from a rollback of net neutrality, there are a large number of smaller internet providers across the country who have banded together to fight the FCC’s proposed repeal, by sending Chairman Pai their letter own letter of protest.
One of the smaller internet providers leading the charge is Sonic, a Bay Area startup, with a mission to keep the internet open and accessible to all. VICE Impact spoke with Tara Sharp, CMO of Sonic, about why America needs net neutrality and what the average consumer can do to get involved.
Though large ISPs like Comcast and AT&T stand to benefit significantly from a rollback of net neutrality, there are a large number of smaller internet providers across the country who have banded together to fight the FCC’s proposed repeal.
VICE Impact: What is net neutrality, why is there so much at stake here?
Tara Sharp: There are a number of large internet service providers and others who have proposed the idea of creating fast lanes. What we can tell you is that there's no such thing, really, as fast lanes. Right now, everything is fast. But if you want to slow something down, you can do that.
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So for example, and this is hypothetical, if Netflix were to enter an agreement with Comcast, and you were a Comcast subscriber, your internet access to Netflix would be really fast. It would be an internet fast lane. But let's say you're a smaller business, like a local media company. And you're not big enough to enter into a relationship with Comcast, so your website isn't one of those internet fast lane websites, and you can't afford to pay for one either.
That would be bad for the business, because people would get frustrated visiting your site because they couldn't download your content. They'd probably hop off of your site and go to another site where they could get things a lot more quickly. So it really disadvantages small businesses in particular. Because we also believe that those fast lane relationships would be expensive.
If net neutrality is stripped away, how could this affect small businesses and startups that couldn't pay for the fast lanes?
Access to a free internet system is mission critical for a lot of these young technology startups. If you were starting Airbnb and you couldn't get people to come to your website because the Hilton website went really, really fast but yours was really, really slow, you would never be able to get Airbnb off the ground. Having net neutrality in place is absolutely critical for the growth and success of all small businesses.
"It really disadvantages small businesses in particular."
Sonic, from our inception, has always believed in the concept of net neutrality. We've always believed that in order to have a really healthy internet culture, that it's critical that everybody has an opportunity to do exactly what they want to do. That's the very basis on which the internet was founded, that it be free and open to everyone. In fact, as an initiative, what we really and truly believe that this country needs to do is increase our internet speeds and make the internet more available to people throughout the country.
How could a repeal of net neutrality affect the average consumer?
We believe that the large ISPs have an opportunity to charge either businesses or customers more money so that they can use these internet fast lanes. And whether they charge the businesses or the customers, at the end of the day, that's probably going to end up coming out of every American's pocket.
We think that the average American who just wants to come home and watch Netflix, for example, would see their bill for their ISP increase. Or, they would have to pay a special increased subscription rate to Netflix, if Netflix has to go and pay an ISP a lot of money for one of these internet fast lanes. They'd probably end up charging their customers more for that added expense.
"Large ISPs have an opportunity to charge either businesses or customers more money so that they can use these internet fast lanes. And whether they charge the businesses or the customers, at the end of the day, that's probably going to end up coming out of every American's pocket."
So at the end of the day, what you're looking at is more expense to the average American, and you're also looking at limiting the number of websites that have prominence. The websites that do have prominence would really be those which the ISPs deem worthy of these fast lanes. And they might deem them worthy because they are politically aligned, or they might deem them worthy because they are financially aligned. But if I want to go and visit other smaller websites, they'd be very slow, and I probably would stop going to some of those websites because the buffering was just too painful.
So If these rules are stripped away, what impact could that have on the news media in America?
This is a country that really prides itself on its entrepreneurship and free speech. And most Americans today are getting their news media through the internet. So for example, if the New York Times wasn't able to enter a great contract with Comcast or AT&T, then I would have a really hard time accessing that publication. Or if I wanted to access my small little local community newspaper, certainly they would not have the ability to create an internet fast lane. So my ability to access the news about what's happening in my small town would really be affected.
In the days leading up to the FCC vote, what can the average American do to make a difference?
First of all, I think it's just important to be informed on the topic. Read what people are saying, talk to your friends about it, and each of you should call FCC Chairman Pai's office, and let them know that you demand net neutrality. After you've called the FCC, call your local congressional office and tell them the same.
The fallout from December 14 could be irreparable. You can also call congress by using the widget below to directly get in touch with your elected official.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity