Without Net Neutrality, What Happens to My Netflix?

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This week, the FCC is unveiling a plan to undo open-internet protections known as “net neutrality,” paving the way for, well, an internet even worse than the one you’re on right now. There are dozens of reasons to be concerned about this plan — but maybe the reason that’s simplest to explain, easiest to understand, and most important to your day-to-day life is this: It’s going to mess with your Netflix.

First, a net-neutrality primer: “Net neutrality” is the idea that you should be able to go wherever you want on the internet, and the middleman connecting you — your internet service provider — can’t play favorites. “Play favorites” in this case means everything from blocking a website entirely to throttling bandwidth speeds to slowing sites to a crawl — or, on the other hand, offering faster bandwidth to companies willing to pay up.

For some time now, ISPs have been wondering, what if they could play favorites? What if they charged big companies like Facebook and Google for a fast lane? What if customers who wanted to connect to websites in Europe had to pay long-distance fees like a telephone call? What if they told Netflix — whose streaming video accounts for a large portion of overall internet traffic — that there wouldn’t be enough bandwidth unless Netflix paid up? And maybe scariest to regular people, what if they started charging customers extra to connect to certain sites, the way cable companies charge for premium channels?

A web separated by artificial and arbitrary boundaries in service of corporate greed sounds pretty bad. And, to make a long story short, that’s what the FCC is creating by stripping out all of the regulations that ensure ISPs provide equal access to the internet.

The question, of course, is: What does a web without net neutrality look like? Is it really as bad as that? If you’re interested in one scenario, take a look at Portugal:

In Portgual (and in Spain), mobile providers offer packages that count data differently based on the apps you want to use. Want streaming video like Netflix and Hulu? If you don’t want to pay exorbitant data fees, add on that $10 package. Want to access sites like Facebook at cheap rates? Just pay our monthly “social-network package” fee. Suddenly, your ability to do all the stuff you’re used to doing on your phone, at the prices you’re used to paying, is subject to the draconian policies of your cell-phone company.

It’s not hard to imagine how that could get implemented for home internet service as well. Maybe a “basic” package that guarantees normal-speed access to email, Google, Wikipedia, supplemented by tiered or thematic packages that ensure access to the other sites you might want. So what happens to your Netflix? Imagine if you had to pay an extra fee to your ISP every month to ensure that you could get your Netflix streams at the quality and speed you’re used to — for no reason other than your ISP wanting to make an extra buck. This becomes legally feasible under the FCC’s new rules. And if you’re one of the millions of Americans who lack real competitive choice for internet access, you don’t have much in the way of options.

This is, of course, an extreme scenario. In the U.S., the death of the open internet will likely be one by a thousand cuts — buffering video, pages slow to load, the further centralization under a few online behemoths with deep pockets willing to pay ISP extortion fees. You won’t likely be blocked from anything, but you might have to climb a mountain to get to it. Consider, for instance, if AT&T and Time Warner merge, a move which the DOJ is planning to sue over. That means that an ISP owns HBO. Maybe AT&T customers will be blocked from Netflix and strong-armed into using HBO as their streaming-video provider. It seems nuts, right? But that’s an internet without net neutrality.

Without Net Neutrality, What Happens to My Netflix?