You may have heard something about a recent court ruling involving Verizon, the FCC and something called “net neutrality.” You may not think it’s important to you, or maybe the whole thing seems too complicated to understand. Neither is true, and if you care about the future of the Internet, you should pay attention. Here’s why:
Consider all the things that tick you off about cable TV. Brainless programming and crummy customer service aside, the very worst aspect of cable TV today is forced bundling. You can’t pay just for the dozen or so channels you actually watch. Instead, you have to pay for a couple of hundred channels, because the good stuff is scattered among a number of overstuffed packages.
Now, imagine that the Internet worked that way. That’s the direction Verizon, with the support of many wired and wireless carriers, would like to push the Web. That’s not hypothetical. It was at the bottom of yesterday’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals that struck down most of the FCC’s 2010 net neutrality rules.
Net neutrality really means that bits are bits, and no matter who controls the pipes used to transport those bits, all must be treated equally. In practice, that means that a carrier cannot discriminate against content moving across its network, even if that content is provided by a competitor. So AT&T, for example, would not have the right to slow down – or even block – Netflix streaming movies or Skype calls while giving priority to its partners’ content.
Unless the ruling is overturned or the FCC finds a way around it, such a scenario is not at all unlikely. AT&T recently unveiled a plan under which it would give its wireless customers free access (that is, no data charge) to content provided by select AT&T partners, who would, of course, pay AT&T for the privilege. While that seems like a good deal for consumers, it sets a terrible precedent by allowing a carrier to give priority to one mover of bits over another.
Is there something you can do? Actually, there is. The FCC inadvertently set the stage for this potential disaster by doing a poor job of framing the legal basis for the net neutrality rules. It may well be possible for the agency to get a do over on that one, but it needs a push from consumers and anyone who believes in an open Internet. If you fit this description, take a minute to sign this petition to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and ask him to take action.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.