For years, the tech community has rallied around net neutrality – the principle that internet service providers aren't allowed to make special arrangements to give faster or slower service to certain types of customers – as one of its central policy concerns. Techies have long feared the day when net neutrality would be overturned, and earlier this year, when an appeals court ruled that providers like Verizon were allowed to make side deals with companies like Netflix and Amazon for faster access, their worst fears seemed to materialize.
So yesterday, when the Times reported that the Federal Communications Commission was, in fact, proposing new rules that would allow companies to pay for faster internet access, the tech commentariat let out a collective yawp of anger.
"The FCC just sold out the Internet," wrote Salon's Andrew Leonard, who outlined the stakes of the FCC's proposed rules:
The FCC has abandoned any pretense of supporting net neutrality ... The implications for free online speech, the future of content delivery, and the likelihood that the next 20 years of Internet evolution will be as exciting as the last are immense.
Writing at The New Yorker, Tim Wu called the FCC's proposed rule changes a "net-discrimination rule":
It threatens to make the Internet just like everything else in American society: unequal in a way that deeply threatens our long-term prosperity. [The FCC] is in the process of violating a core promise to innovators, to the technology sector, and, really, to all of us who use the Internet.
The Verge's T.C. Sottek fretted about what the new rules might do for start-ups trying to compete with deep-pocketed incumbents:
In the future, your internet provider could allow companies with the most cash to shut out other services that have to wait in line to reach you. That means the next YouTube or Facebook could be slaughtered by wealthy competitors instead of being tested on their merits.
On Twitter, Gigaom founder and venture capitalist Om Malik put the blame on FCC head Tom Wheeler, and D.C. in general:
While Dan Gillmor blamed President Obama for nominating Wheeler in the first place:
Remember: "turnaround" by FCC's Wheeler reflects outright betrayal by Obama, whose Net Neutrality vow was a lie. http://t.co/86WnOfcgz5— Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor) April 24, 2014
Even on Secret – Silicon Valley's anonymous sharing app of choice – the "aux barricades!" cries came fast and furious: "Woke up at 3am and wrote an email to Tom Wheeler about the death of the internet as we know it. I recommend you do the same (but at some reasonable hour)," one user wrote.
A hyperbolic tech-sector freakout over net neutrality has happened in the past – Matt Buchanan calls it "the internet that cried apocalypse." And this time, the hand-wringing might be a little premature – the FCC's commissioners still have to vote on the proposal, and as Dan Primack notes, the proposed rules may be nothing more than a trial balloon to gauge public opinion. FCC chairman Wheeler said in a statement yesterday that reports of net neutrality's demise were "flat-out wrong."
But a rule finally and officially declaring the end of net neutrality would mean that techies have been right in their paranoia all along. Unless it's prepared to change its mind, or unless early reports are sorely mistaken, the FCC should gird itself for a backlash like none other it's seen before.