What If You Had to Pay Extra for Netflix?

Demonstrating the real-world effects of net neutrality, and of losing it, can be difficult. It can be hard to illustrate how removing FCC rules preventing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from doing certain things has a very real impact on everyday consumers and disadvantages lower income internet users in ways that can have both digital and real world consequences. Nevertheless, I’m going to try to illustrate it using one of the most popular web sites today: Netflix.

Think of Netflix as a metaphor for the entire internet. Right now, you pay a flat, monthly subscription fee for access to Netflix. Now, there are different rates available based on how many screens you want to be able to use simultaneously (this is basically akin to paying more for faster internet speeds), but once you have access to Netflix, you’re free to choose from any of the shows or movies available to stream. And Netflix can’t affect your streaming speed based on how much you’re paying them or whether you’re watching Netflix-produced shows (slowing down speeds on certain sites is a strategy called “throttling” that was used by ISPs prior to net neutrality). 

Importantly, no movie or show can pay for special treatment, such as being pushed into everyone’s “recommended for you” sections. Additionally, competing movies can’t pay Netflix to block access to similar movies. So, Marvel Studios can’t pay Netflix to remove or block access to any of DC Studio’s Batman films (even though Marvel would almost certainly be able to outbid DC in a bidding war). Without net neutrality, companies could bid to have ISPs block users from accessing rival company sites. (Note: Yes, I know all of Marvel’s stuff is way better than what DC has on Netflix anyway. That’s totally beside the point.)

Now imagine Netflix rethinks its business model. Instead of access to everything, at consistent speeds, you only get to access the shows and movies paying Netflix the most. You are at the whim of company bottom lines. All of the lower budget indie films you love are gone, outbid by the most recent Adam Sandler summer blockbuster with way too many fart jokes in it.

This is the kind of impact repealing net neutrality could have on the actual internet—slowing down your access to certain sites and potentially even blocking you from sites altogether. Businesses would have to bid for “priority” user access, and small businesses just cannot compete in a bidding war with the giants. Think your small, local hospital’s awesome telemedicine services can survive once Kaiser Permanente starts sending Verizon and AT&T some extra fees? Think again.

Recently, 45 mayors, including Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco, signed a letter to the FCC imploring them to maintain net neutrality because of the protections it provides smaller businesses and consumers. In a previous blog post, I wrote about the growing Digital Divide that is preventing some from accessing the internet and participating in an increasingly digital culture and economy. The issue centered on internet access and asserted that everyone should have the ability to go online from home. Net neutrality protects the quality of that access and ensures digital equity, guaranteeing the ability to access the sites and information you want to access. My time in local government reminds me that every policy decision, no matter how small or seemingly esoteric, has real world impact on the opportunities available to every day citizens and their life experience. When it comes to the internet, it’s important to remember that net neutrality is what ensures that once you pay for internet, you have the entire internet available to you, and it should stay that way. Because, really, don’t we like Netflix the way it is?