In an absolutely stunning turnaround, the FCC today will propose a new set of net neutrality rules that completely eviscerate the principle of net neutrality, and threaten to “brutalize the Internet” as we know it. You can read more on the proposal, and the importance of net neutrality, here and here.
For those who haven’t been following, net neutrality is the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs – Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, etc.) have to treat all traffic and all content equally. They can’t favor one site/service (ESPN and Netflix) over another (CBS and YouTube) in terms of access or speed. The idea is that consumers pay for access to the Internet, and they should be able to see whatever they want on the Internet without the ISP discriminating among those choices.
Earlier this year, a court case threw a wrench in net neutrality, and required the FCC to come up with a new rule to address the issue. My fear at the time was that ISPs would pounce on this uncertain period and start charging content-providers an extra fee to connect consumers to their site/service. A lot of folks thought those fears were unfounded. Turns out, not only were they not unfounded, the FCC is considering explicitly legitimizing the practice.
Seeing the swift and strong reaction of folks who are in favor of an open Internet (which, like, should be every single person in the world except service providers and gigantic websites/services), the FCC released a statement to try and calm fears:
There are reports that the FCC is gutting the Open Internet rule. They are flat out wrong. Tomorrow we will circulate to the Commission a new Open Internet proposal that will restore the concepts of net neutrality consistent with the court’s ruling in January. There is no ‘turnaround in policy.’ The same rules will apply to all Internet content. As with the original Open Internet rules, and consistent with the court’s decision, behavior that harms consumers or competition will not be permitted.
That’s all well and good, but that’s a separate issue. No one fears that the FCC would actually allow ISPs to flat-out block certain content discriminately. The fear is that, if you allow ISPs to negotiate agreements that favor some traffic over others, the end result is discrimination against sites/services that can’t afford the price of that artificial poker.
Imagine that ISPs are the highway, and consumers are seeking to drive on that highway. You pay the ISP to get on the highway, and you can exit at whatever business you’d like. Now, ISPs want the right to charge those business for allowing you, the consumer, to exit at their stop. McDonald’s will easily (if begrudgingly) be able to pay that fee, and they will keep their customers exiting for their McGriddles. Mom ‘n Pop’s Bakery can’t afford the fee. Under these proposed rules, the ISP highway couldn’t stop you from exiting at Mom ‘n Pop’s, but they could install a traffic light at the exit that allows only one car through every hour. If that happened, how often would you actually go to Mom ‘n Pop’s?
In the Internet ecosystem, if things played out that way, the impact for consumers (and, obviously, sites like this one) could be devastating. For one thing, the content providers that agree to pay the fee to various ISPs so that their sites stay in the “fast lane” will inevitably pass those fees on to consumers. For another thing, content providers that cannot afford to pay such fees could suffer from reduced site effectiveness, reduced traffic, reduced profitability, etc. If and when that happens, new sites and services stop popping up. You know what’s good for consumers? Competition. You know what would suck? If we operated in a world where Twitter was squashed in the womb because it couldn’t afford to get going in a way that actually drew interest. There will be no next Netflix or next Facebook (and, indeed, big boys like that will lose some of their incentive to keep improving and innovating).
Allowing ISPs to favor some content over others – and, believe me, if they’re permitted to do it, they will, because money – will benefit two groups, and only two groups: ISPs who can then making money coming (you paying for service) and going (companies paying for access to you), and large sites/services that can afford to pay for the fast lane (and thus bleed out their competition). Among the groups that are hurt: consumers (who will face more fees, less choice, and less innovative services), small sites/services that can’t afford to pay (yo), and yet-unstarted sites and services that will find the barrier to entry now too steep to even try and climb (i.e., the next Netflix or Twitter or whatever).
The problem? The benefited groups are large and have significant lobbying power. The harmed groups are small (or don’t exist yet), and have no meaningful lobbying power.
If you are a user of the Internet – that’s not just websites, but it’s apps and services, too – you should care about this issue. And, from where I sit, you should want strong net neutrality.
UPDATE: A little from Boing Boing, and how to contact someone relevant to whom you can register a complaint:
FCC expected to propose new rules today that will kill Net Neutrality. Here’s how to contact the FCC commissioners: http://t.co/58sotY0BSa
— Boing Boing (@BoingBoing) April 24, 2014