Net neutrality is about more than small vs. big

tuxWith the FCC reportedly considering allowing paid “fast lanes” for internet traffic, the principle of net neutrality looks more at risk than ever. One of the big concerns of net neutrality advocates is that its absence might empower incumbent firms over newer, smaller, more innovative ones. That is a very valid and important concern.

But small firms represent only one sort of innovator, and arguably not the one most at risk from pay-to-play operations.

Here are a couple examples of the protect-the-startups meme in recent coverage. From NYT:

Consumer groups immediately attacked the proposal, saying that not only would costs rise, but also that big, rich companies with the money to pay large fees to Internet service providers would be favored over small start-ups with innovative business models — stifling the birth of the next Facebook or Twitter.

And here’s an editorial from The Financial Times, arguing that net neutrality may no longer be the right goal:

The fine detail of the FCC’s decision will matter. The regulator will have to ensure its reforms do not create barriers to entry for small and innovative companies – the internet giants of the future.

At The New Yorker, net neutrality advocate and media scholar Tim Wu goes a bit broader:

We take it for granted that bloggers, start-ups, or nonprofits on an open Internet reach their audiences roughly the same way as everyone else. Now they won’t.

To the extent that we can protect innovative new firms from being crushed by incumbents before they get off the ground, that’s great. But the next Facebook or Twitter, while at risk, also has the ability to raise capital and spend it on faster content delivery. (The details of the FCC regulations aren’t yet clear but it sounds like there will be a requirement that similar pay-to-play offers be available to all comers.)

An even bigger risk then is for non-professional content producers and for peer-to-peer, commons-based production. The bloggers Wu mentions could fall into this category, though if they’re using a proprietary platform like Tumblr or Medium they might not. A peer-to-peer project like Wikipedia has its nonprofit arm, but little ability to raise the capital necessary to ensure delivery. Less organized peer production efforts would be at even greater risk. A distributed network of independent bloggers might produce great content, but that content will be delivered slower than content produced by professionals, or by amateurs who’ve bought into a commercial platform. Suddenly, peer production is at a huge disadvantage relative to commercial production unless it has the weight of a commercial enterprise behind it.

The promise of large-scale production outside of firms or governments, from open source software to Wikipedia to independent blogging, was once one of the greatest promises of the internet. And it is even more at risk from the legalization of pay-to-play than are startups. Sure, incumbents might lean on startups who can’t afford to pay for faster delivery. But just as worrying is the thought that startups might raise venture capital to pay for faster delivery in order to crowd out commons-based peer production.

The net neutrality debate isn’t just about small vs. big. It’s also about commercial vs. the commons.