How Might the Internet Change Without Net Neutrality?

Jan 20, 2017

Now that the new administration is in, it’s strange to me that no one is thinking about what might happen to the internet given the desire to kill net neutrality in the U.S.

For those not knowledgeable of what net neutrality means, it basically means you can connect from your device to any server that will accept you, and that any network packets in your connection will be routed by best effort no matter where they have to go. Every connection and every packet is treated the same by all participants. It is such a simple concept—and it has always been the basis of the entire idea of the internet.

At least in the US, there are only a handful of ISPs and mobile carriers which provide the bulk of internet access for everyone in the country. What could they do to take advantage of limited or no government restrictions?

The simplest thing is what they are doing now—offer their own or partnered destinations as not counting against a cap, where everything else does. This is fairly simple to implement but is more useful for competition purposes for mobile carriers, since there is competition there. For the landline ISPs this wouldn’t really matter much, as generally there are few or no alternatives for customers. A lot of people only use mobile services these days so there is some need to compete.

If a free and open internet is no longer a priority, there are many new opportunities for ISPs to take advantage of. How far they are willing to go is a good question. Imagine for a moment you were an ISP, what would you consider? For one you could start charging your customers for access to popular websites, perhaps as part of a bundle, while relegating the bulk of the internet to a lower speed channel. At the same time, you could consider charging the other end to allow connections from your customers. So any connections that crossed your network would require payment from both parties otherwise they would be limited to the slow lane.

I imagine a whitelist approach would be fairly simple, if the ip is one of these, and it’s marked as paying, and the customer’s list includes that as well, then mark it as high priority. Any other combination is lowered in importance, so the speed will vary depending on demand or even stop if the network gets busy.

Another option is to block all connections other than the paid ones; I find that hard to imagine as it would break everything on the internet. This is the simplest to implement, but of course still requires negotiation with peers since every ISP does not own a full network for everything. This could be simplified further by mergers and acquisitions to extend the major ISP’s reach.

Of course such a cable model will be a terrible option and likely drive people to using mobile carriers only, so there too I expect some mergers to take place. AT&T already has its foot in both worlds. This way by reducing all competition (assuming the government is OK with this) customers will have few or no alternatives. The most profitable business is a protected monopoly with few restrictions.

Implementing such a highly reduced internet offering might also require a few additional tweaks. People often use VPNs or TOR to bypass restrictions, but they are still connections to IP addresses that could be blocked or too slow to be usable. I would assume restricting DNS servers to only the ISP’s would also help and has other benefits as well. If you can easily block IP addresses for alternative DNS providers like Google and require all lookups to your own you could use DNS to provide alternative connections.

Imagine you are Comcast and a customer wanted to visit a Disney Park, it would be easy to direct them instead to Universal, since you own those parks. Charter might off an exclusive deal for Bing and block Google search. Maybe one could make a deal with a financial institution to be the official Bank. This has many possibilities, all of which could be extremely profitable. When you charge all who can enter the roadway all the vehicles will be paying customers.

Does this all sound far fetched? Maybe, but we don’t know the extent of what an un- or poorly- regulated internet will be like.

Now imagine the other side. If you are Google, what do you do? You are competing with the ISPs but make most of your money from advertising on websites large and small, most of whom are now slow-laned or even unavailable. Google itself may be charged to allow connections and will have to pay all network parties to ensure access. Given that their income is now lower due to fewer ads being visible on websites which are less visible, and their expenses higher, I would wonder how well they can survive. Even companies such as Amazon which operate at a fairly low profit level will be forced to pay for access and may even find themselves blocked by ISP’s which have given exclusives to someone else. The bidding war will be brutal, and likely make a lot of companies no longer viable.

This could also affect companies that do business on mobile even with more competition there, since it would be likely that the carriers would negotiate exclusive deals. For example, you might be able to book on Uber on one carrier, but not on another. Mobile apps would also find themselves unable to contact all of their domains depending on where the customer is and what network path a connection went through. At work our app has about a dozen domains that it contacts; this would be a nightmare to manage and test.

VC’s and startups would find this new restricted internet a terrible place to do business. Starting a new mobile company would be impossible as any venture funds might be entirely eaten up by negotiated connections. I doubt we would see more than a handful even try.

Of course internet users would suffer as well, as what you can use and who you can contact and how you do business would be limited by your ISP, or where you are or what mobile carrier you have. Apps would cease to function reliably or be entirely blocked, forcing users to pay more for the few sites or apps they can’t live without. My blog would possibly vanish since I am unable to pay for allowing people to read me everywhere (I make no money on this). If they adapted the slow lane plan at least my very low bandwidth requirement might make it still viable; however access to my server might be limited or unavailable. How AWS would function in this fragmentary internet is hard to imagine. Maybe Amazon would try to buy an ISP but even there I imagine competition for this would be fierce. Companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft need everyone to be able to connect and they have lots of money. But will it be enough?

Today everything and everyone is on the internet, from huge companies to small shops, from newspapers to blogs, and of course everything social and entertainment. Restricting access for connection requests, or blocking or slowing down packets you don’t want, may make a lot of these websites and applications unusable or even invisible which can only be a huge damper on the economy. We can’t as a people go back to phone calls and mail and newspapers.

How will this all work out? Will the internet businesses and ISP’s clash in a giant financial brawl for control? Will the new administration realize that such a massive change to something so foundational to business and life today can only cause enormous damage to the country and its economy; while potentially providing massive profits to a small number of companies? Is that a reasonable tradeoff? I doubt if any of us think so but there is likely nothing we can do if this is the new course.

If the internet became restrictive another interesting twist would be if the government made certificate authorities illegal except for theirs and forced all SSL connections to be made using certs derived from the national authority; of course that would make it trivial to intercept all communications, assuming there is anyone left who will listen. I have no idea how this could be done so maybe it is simply crazy. Clearly China has been trying to control their internet with only modest success. Can our government do better?

When the internet started everything was a wonderland of experimentation, and again when it went mobile we saw an enormous outpouring of ideas, amazing ones and stupid ones both. We all thought the internet would allow truth to be prevalent, but instead we got an amplification of everything but truth, and a lot of opportunity for hackers everywhere. Still the positive of being connected far outweighs the negatives.

But the internet cannot be partitioned, or fragmented, or balkanized—it won’t work and would likely destroy a huge part of the economy. It’s an Inter Net, a network where everyone is connected to everyone else and anything different will not work. The disruption to businesses large and small is not worth the profits of a few.

I hope to write more in the future, assuming you can read it. If not I might have to send postcards.

Just make sure to send me a stamp first. I'll probably be out of work and have no money, likely not much need for mobile programmers in this brave new world.