The Senate may soon be voting on net neutrality. The net neutrality debate is driven in part by the fact that Internet service providers (ISPs) have the technical ability and financial incentive to act as gatekeepers, picking winners and losers in the Internet marketplace. Perhaps an ISP will favor a particular airline reservation website or an online newspaper by blocking access to its competitors, or simply by making access to competitors’ content painfully slow. These delays matter; Google found that a majority of viewers typically abandon a website if they have to wait just three seconds.
Members of Congress may not realize that ISPs can similarly pick winners and losers in elections. A modern campaign depends on the Internet to accept contributions, and to get its message out. If access to a campaign website is slow, impatient users will abandon the site, some credit card transactions will fail, campaign contributions will be lost, and fewer supporters will sign up to volunteer. With today’s technology, an ISP can easily degrade performance when a subscriber accesses one site, and improve performance when she accesses a competing site, all without revealing the cause. Obviously, the impact on a campaign is even greater if an ISP blocks a site completely. Thus, whether they realize it yet or not, politicians depend on the good will of ISPs to succeed, just as online merchants and commercial content providers do. This is not healthy for free elections, or for a free market.
ISPs will probably say that they would never wish to favor one candidate’s website over another, but its hard to argue that ISPs don’t care who wins elections when ISPs like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are among the twenty biggest spenders on lobbying in the U.S. (The combined lobbying expenditures of these three ISPs alone over the last decade was close to half a billion dollars.) It would be tempting for an ISP to use control of its network to influence a close election rather than using only its checkbook, if there were no government-imposed limits on this kind of behavior.