The FCC is embroiled in a fight over a little something called "net neutrality," and on Thursday it voted to consider a new set of rules that would, in my view -- and that of many consumer advocates -- severely damage the Internet.
I’m not crying wolf. If the FCC adopts the proposed rules, the Internet won’t die, and your connection won’t slow to dial-up speeds. But the outcome will not be good for consumers and it will not be good for innovative new companies that hope to compete with established giants, such as Facebook and Netflix.
In essence, net neutrality means that all forms of content should be treated equally on the Internet. No content gets priority; no content is slowed. That’s a simplification, but it sums up the heart of the matter.
ISPs including Comcast and Verizon have already started to charge some companies a premium for faster, more direct delivery of content to their customers. Netflix, as I wrote earlier in the year, complained that its streaming video wasn’t streaming fast enough. So it cut deals with Comcast and Verizon to pay more for access. And what do you know? Netflix viewers stopped complaining about slow connections.
What’s wrong with that? Quite a bit, really. First of all, you’ll pay more for the privilege. Netflix just upped its subscription price, and other companies that may have to cut similar deals will most likely do the same.
There’s a more complex issue here as well. Giants like Google, Facebook and Netflix can afford to pay more for fast access, even though they hate the idea. But suppose a rival to one of those behemoths was just getting off the ground with new technology and services you’d love. If its service depends on very fast connections, and it can’t afford to pay the premium, it could die in the crib, and consumers who might have benefited from service will never know about it.
Comcast and Verizon (and other companies like them) already have way too much power. Giving them even more is a huge mistake. (If Comcast succeeds in buying Time Warner Cable, the stakes will be even higher, but that's a topic for a separate post.)
At Thursday’s meeting, the FCC took the first step in approving new net neutrality rules. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal would prohibit broadband providers from selectively blocking traffic, but his proposal says broadband providers can manage traffic in "commercially reasonable" ways.
This is an immense loophole that has to be closed. And you can help by signing this petition to the FCC.
I want to be fair to Wheeler. He and President Obama, who campaigned on a pledge to support net neutrality, are limited by a series of federal court decisions knocking down key provisions of early FCC net neutrality rules. But Wheeler, who was a lobbyist for the cable industry, has gone too far. There are options that would restore net neutrality while still staying within the legal boundaries set by the courts.
I urge you to read more about this issue (the folks at InfoWorld have a good explainer) and then sign the petition. It’s your Internet; it’s in your interest to defend it.
Image: Action Institute