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What would we do, as an industry, if one LMS provider paid for “fast lane” internet access and the others didn’t?

It could happen, now that the FCC has voted to repeal the requirement for “net neutrality.”  

Without a legal prohibition, landline internet service providers are now allowed to charge websites extra for ‘fast lane’ service, to slow content with which they compete, and to block entirely any content they want. (My impression is that those rules never applied to mobile providers, such as those that cover smartphones. They were about home broadband.)  So if, say, Comcast wanted to stop cord-cutters, it could slow or block content from Netflix or Sling TV. And if a politically motivated owner were to take charge of an ISP, it could make life difficult for sites on the other side politically.

As someone tweeted last week, if a liberal CEO of Comcast were to suddenly start throttling pro-gun sites, we’d have net neutrality back within a week. (There’s historical warrant for that. When the Black Panthers started brandishing guns in Oakland, then-Governor Reagan suddenly saw the wisdom of gun control laws.)  Laws to stop change tend to favor the folks currently on top. At least for a while.

Ajit Pai, the chair of the FCC, has claimed that moving enforcement of internet rules from the FCC to the FTC will still allow enforcement of judgments against anticompetitive practices. That may or may not be true as a practical matter, but even if it is, it’s only after the fact, and only in a commercial context. The FTC offers no protection to political speech. That’s not a part of its mission. The FCC does, but not for the internet anymore.  If, say, Comcast decided to give Fox News preferential access and to throttle the Washington Post, it could.  

Netflix would probably be willing and able to pay the toll for a fast lane. But the next Netflix, still incipient, wouldn’t.  It’s hard enough to compete with Google now; give Google a literal head start into everyone’s home, and it would be impossible.  

It doesn’t take much imagination to see, say, Amazon or Google buying Blackboard, and letting it piggyback on its ‘preferred’ status as a fast lane site.  That would immediately put users of other learning management systems in a bad spot. Over time, that would lead to even greater consolidation in a field that has already seen significant consolidation.  We’d be stuck paying whatever licensing fee it asked, and living with whatever features and support it wanted to bother to offer.  In the absence of meaningful competition, it would have no reason to spend much on improvement. Colleges and students would suffer.

In most places, home broadband suffers a lack of competition now. A disturbing number of students report that they write papers on their phones, because it’s their only internet access off campus. Now the ISP’s will be emboldened to charge more and provide less, simply because there’s no legal or competitive pressure not to. Add consolidation in the LMS market, and our students will be even more marginalized than they already are.  

Part of the visceral appeal of electronics and the web has been the remarkable openness and speed of innovation. We stand to lose that now, with the internet congealing quickly into a few giants that stomp out anyone or anything new. And our students stand to be even more at the mercy of a few behemoths, just like we will be. (Tressie McMillan Cottom has a characteristically smart take here; check it out.)

Technically, Congress could override the ruling, but I’m not holding my breath. It doesn’t seem to care much about the popular will or the common good these days.  Our best hope, heaven help us all, may be litigation. At least until there’s a more fundamental change.

In the meantime, here’s hoping that the consolidation wave spares the LMS market long enough for a new administration to come in and undo the damage.  

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