The time to think about middlemen is before there's only one
I grew up near a mall that had 42 shoe stores. If a store didn't carry what you wanted, it wasn't a big deal to walk 22 feet to a store that did.
The core issue of net neutrality isn't whether or not a big corporation ought to have the freedom to maximize profit by choosing what to feature. No, the key issue is: what happens when users are unable to choose a different middleman?
In a town with ten newspapers, finding a newspaper that brings you the truth you seek is not a challenge. But network effects and lock in mean that in more and more arenas, there's a natural monopoly arising.
The simple example is cable TV. It doesn't pay to wire a town with five or six competing cable companies, and so we end up with one middleman. The simple understanding of net neutrality: When there's only one middleman, who gets to decide what you see?
When local retailers disappear, who decides what you can buy? Do we want a middleman to be able to lock content out for their own reasons? I think it's reasonable to have the following principle in place: Promote what you approve of, but don't black out what you don't.
We can argue that it's smart branding and good business to let your users have what they want. But often, corporate short-term interests fly in the face of long-term customer satisfaction, and the race to profit gets in the way of our culture's need to hear and see and read work that might not fit those interests.
What if search engines or ISPs decide to 'disappear' content they don't like? When there are plenty of middlemen, it's not really an issue. But when there's lock-in, it's too late to have this discussion.
We make a deal with the natural monopolies in our lives. They get the privilege and the profit of being the only one, but in exchange, they accept the responsibility of being open middlemen, of being neutral, of not blacking out those that don't pay up or that don't agree.
If ConEd or your local power utility said, "sorry, our electricity can't be used on Maytag appliances because they didn't pay a slotting fee," you'd be appropriately incensed. But when it happens to ideas, I fear the cost is even greater.
We live in the connection economy, a world based on ideas. When a few corporate titans can control the flow of those ideas and the essence of that connection, we've given up far too much.