Let’s say you call Joe’s Pizza and the first thing you hear is a message saying you’ll be connected in a minute or two, but if you want, you can be connected to Pizza Hut right away. That’s not fair, right? You called Joe’s and want some Joe’s pizza. Well, that’s how some telecommunications executives want the Internet to operate, with some Web sites easier to access than others. For them, this would be a money-making regime.
Yes, what a topsy-turvy, dystopian sci-fi world this is, where large companies pay for what we might call “additional phone lines” while customers of a small business might attempt to call in, only to encounter some kind of “busy signal.” Clearly an existential threat to democracy.
Update: Various commenters (including no less than Cory Doctorow—I’m flattered) point out that the mechanism by which non-neutral net filtering works is different from having a busy signal, since a company might get its packets slowed even if it had a whole welter of T3 lines. And of course that’s right: The only point I was making was that there’s nothing especially novel or crazy about companies being more or less easily or rapidly accessible depending upon what they’re prepared to pay. And it’s hard to see why it’s fine for this differential to arise because some companies can afford bigger pipes on their end, or multiple geographically dispersed servers, but it’s suddenly a “bribe” or “protection money” if the differential arises from what amounts to a company’s cross-subsidy for a user’s faster access. This, too, is pretty familiar from the telephonic context: Normally the person placing a call ponies up the dime, but some companies get 800 numbers, subsidizing customer calls to them but not their competitors.