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On Monday President Obama released a statement about the importance of net neutrality to ongoing innovation. And I couldn’t agree more.
The Open Internet is a Proven Platform for Innovation
For the last 25 years, the open Internet has been the fundamental enabler of new business and innovation around the world. No other technology has so radically changed how we live and work in such a short amount of time.
But it’s only in the last few years, with the proliferation of mobile broadband and the near-ubiquity of always-on residential broadband, that we have started to glimpse the Internet’s true potential for creative disruption.
The Internet has given digital entrepreneurs an unheard of level of career flexibility, self-determination, and opportunity for experimentation. From a digital freelancer with a virtual cafe office to a small group of developers renting a beach houses to code the next messaging app, these new work styles wouldn’t be possible without access to the Internet. Our marketplace is global, and entrepreneurs are constantly finding new and innovative ways to improve every aspect of how we create and share as a global community.
The Network is the Thing
But while the Internet is a rich interconnected ecosystem full of competition and choice, most Internet users often have little choice in how they connect to it. Customers in many areas are limited to a single broadband ISP (or two if they’re lucky) since cable and telephone companies have geographic monopolies or duopolies in many parts of the United States.
Net neutrality would treat access to the Internet like a utility, prohibiting broadband providers from deciding which sites or applications (including their own) should get priority treatment, and guaranteeing that consumers and businesses are able to use whatever legal applications and services they choose.
Your ISP won’t be able to tell you which apps you can or can’t use on their network — the same way the water company can’t tell you how to use the water that comes out of your tap.
Simply put, net neutrality can prevent the 2014 Internet from regressing into the 1990s AOL network, where every service was AOL, and only AOL.
An Interconnected Ecosystem Is Only as Strong as its Weakest Link
Some people have compared limiting Internet access to the bundled packages of TV channels that cable companies offer. But the scenario is even more complex. Cable TV channels are standalone services. The Weather Channel doesn’t rely on MTV or HBO to function. Cable companies might force you to buy several channels to get the one you actually want, but those channels don’t actually depend on each other to operate.
Net neutrality, however, isn’t just about Netflix not streaming in HD or having to pay extra to use Spotify instead of Pandora (although those restrictions would be onerous enough). This is about the increasingly interconnected mesh of Internet services and APIs that enable so many of the Internet applications we use on a regular basis.
Modern web sites aren’t monolithic entities served from a single source. They’re complex applications comprised of multiple services connected through web APIs. These services pull information from numerous servers and databases to create rich user experiences. Limiting or degrading access to any one of these services could affect numerous other sites as well.
Consider how many web applications use the Google Maps API or depend on Facebook for logging in users, or how many services are completely hosted on Amazon’s S3 computing platform.
This nightmare scenario isn’t limited to affecting individual websites. Whole networks of interconnected services could be effectively blacklisted from large groups of Internet users. Critical services would be replaced with inferior offerings from companies that have cut financial deals with service providers for preferred or exclusive access to their customers.
History Repeats, Unless We Stop It
It may seem like ancient history now, but the twenty-first century got off to a rocky start as far as the open Internet goes. When Internet Explorer had over 90 percent of the browser market, Microsoft was able to leverage proprietary web technologies to maintain control of the desktop computing experience by tying advanced web functionality to Windows. This stifled any web innovation that relied on modern, cross-platform web standards.
Fortunately, competitors like Firefox, Safari, and Chrome emerged and offered an experience that was compelling enough for users to download and install another browser. These newer browsers supported vendor-neutral web standards that enabled rich, desktop-class experiences in the browser — experiences that we take for granted only a few years later.
But if Internet service providers are able to limit which services users can connect to, there won’t be such an easy fix.
It Can Happen Here …It’s Happening Already
Data is data, but even while arguing that further net neutrality mandates are unnecessary, ISPs and wireless providers are still exerting undue control over how their networks are used.
In recent examples, we’ve seen attempts by ISPs to control network applications at the edge. In 2007 Comcast was found to have intentionally degraded peer-to-peer traffic on its network. Then in 2010 it played hardball with network provider, Level 3, to extract higher fees for Netflix traffic crossing onto the Comcast network — traffic that both Netflix and Comcast customers were already paying for. Verizon recently did the same thing.
It isn’t surprising that the companies campaigning against net neutrality regulations are the ones that consistently rank the lowest in customer satisfaction surveys: wired and wireless broadband providers.
Mobile was at a Standstill
The situation with wireless providers is even more fragile. Before the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, wireless providers had almost complete control of the apps installed on any smartphones that connected to their networks. If wireless providers still had their way, mobile apps like Instagram, Uber, and WhatsApp might never have existed.
Even today, wireless providers often charge an additional fee to allow customers to use the Wi-Fi hotspot feature built into their phone, even though that data is already included in their service plan. Now those customers are being asked to pay twice for the right to use their connection the way they want. This is a clear example of how Internet providers can abuse their power and increase costs without adding any value.
This control even extends to the hardware itself. While most phones around the world can be switched between carriers by swapping a SIM card, Verizon is notorious for only allowing Verizon-specific devices on its network. This practice harkens back to the Bell Telephone days when only Bell-approved phones where allowed to connect to the telephone network. Do you remember much telephone innovation happening between 1913 and 1984? I don’t. In seventy years, we went from rotary dialing to touch tone. That’s about it.
The Fallout Affects Everyone
Businesses and entrepreneurs have built companies that increasingly rely on open and unfettered access to the Internet. Right now, we’re fortunate enough to have a rich marketplace of ideas and innovation that allows the top talent and the best products and services to rise to the top. It empowers entrepreneurs to experiment with new business models and technologies while giving customers an unprecedented level of transparency and choice.
Let’s make sure we don’t lose all that by allowing a few corporations to dictate what we can access on the Internet.
Micha Kaufman is CEO and founder of Fiverr.
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