New York Tech Meetup Calls for Action in Fight Over Net Neutrality

6/4/14Follow @jpruth

Last night’s New York Tech Meetup kicked off with a loud outcry to preserve net neutrality.

Usually the monthly gathering dives right into tech demos from early stage innovators, but another matter took center stage this time. At stake is the level playing field, enforced by federal regulations, for companies of any size to reach the public over the Web.

The concern is that changes sought by Internet service providers would put higher price tags on higher, more reliable data speeds—and hobble startups that can’t afford to ride in the fast lane.

“The forces against the open Internet are regrouping,” NYTM chairman Andrew Rasiej said. “Instead of doing chokeholds, they’re starting to slice the Internet up with 1,000 little cuts.”

Another speaker, writer and NYU professor Clay Shirky, had a firm warning. “This is not a test. This is not a drill. It’s a bona fide emergency,” he said.

Shirky, who teaches about the influence communications networks have on culture, believes certain principles of fair access are under attack with the changes ISPs are seeking. Large, incumbent media companies, he said, would effectively gain more power on the Web, which thus far has been open for equitable use.

“The Internet means you don’t have to convince anyone else it’s a good idea before you get to try it,” Shirky said.

The burden of explaining the importance of net neutrality to the American public falls on the tech community, he said, even though many people benefit from it. More widespread support will be necessary, Shirky said, to halt the division into fast and slow lanes.

“This issue, while incredibly vital, is also incredibly boring,” he said. “People who understand what goes on at the router understand that net neutrality is vital. But people who understand what goes on at the router wouldn’t fill Yankee Stadium.”

This techno-political hot-button topic has included court fights and lobbying efforts by such providers as Verizon and Comcast. And the outcome is not just a concern for startups: as satirist John Oliver recently noted, large companies such as Netflix and Google also want to preserve net neutrality rather than feel a throttling pinch that forces them to pay higher rates.

Investors see changes ahead if the Web gets split into faster and slower lanes. Brad Burnham, managing partner with Union Square Ventures, spoke last night about New York companies such as Foursquare that grew in part thanks to net neutrality. “There was no way to pay for preference,” he said. “Everybody had equal access.”

Having fast lanes for data and content on the Web, Burnham said, could change discussions between startups and investors. Doubts may arise about a startup’s software or service if it is affected by latency or bandwidth usage, especially when competing with rivals in the fast lane. That could trigger questions on how to fund the startup to be on equal footing.

“We don’t know what that would be,” Burnham said, “but we know that would be more than $25,000.”

He implored the audience to share their concerns with the Federal Communications Commission during the remaining comment period on this matter.

This is not the first time NYTM has lent its voice to political issues. The organization, which boasts some 39,000 members, was one of many to oppose the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and related legislation seen as potential threats to innovation.

NYTM is also far from alone in the fight to preserve net neutrality. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and Brad Feld, managing director with the Foundry Group, have already spoken up about the changes sought by Internet service providers.

Shirky said it is vital for the stakes to be better understood by the masses, who may not realize what they could be giving up: “If we can’t convince the American public—everyone who uses the Internet without thinking about it—that private taxation of the network is a bad idea, we will lose this fight.”

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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