Open Internet. Net neutrality. Whatever you want to call it, it appears to be dying. And if you’re wondering whether you should mourn its death, might as well get that black suit ready.
The FCC is set to propose new rules Thursday to update the Open Internet order it adopted in 2010 under former Chairman Julius Genachowski, according to a couple of reports. The existing rules, which were meant to ensure that all Internet traffic would be treated equally, were problematic from the start: They were deemed too soft by champions of net neutrality because they failed to reclassify broadband and left open the question about whether the FCC really had regulatory authority. The rules were considered an overreach by companies such as Verizon — which in January won its challenge against the FCC regulations. At the time, new Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said “we will consider all available options, including those for appeal.”
But sources tell the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times that Wheeler — a former telecom lobbyist — is instead going to propose rules (to be voted on at a May 15 meeting) that would officially make preferential treatment of network traffic OK. That is, content providers that want to make sure their online offerings are delivered smoothly and quickly would pay ISPs for the pleasure.
For example, Comcast customers who subscribed to Netflix once suffered slow video streaming. Netflix struck a deal to pay Comcast, and voila, the streaming experience improved. But Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says his company had no choice but to pay a “toll” to Comcast; it could not risk losing the many customers the two companies have in common. Troy Wolverton wrote about Comcast’s response this week: In a nutshell, Comcast said the deal — which involves a direct, network-to-network connection between Netflix and the broadband provider, also known as peering — doesn’t violate net neutrality.
However the FCC and others try to paint the new rules, the codifying of what essentially are faster lanes to certain content violates the concept of net neutrality. It could lead to degraded speeds and quality of the flow of content from providers that won’t or can’t pay Comcast, Verizon, AT&T or others.
What, then, could that mean? It means that the Googles and Apples and Yahoos and Facebooks and even Netflixes of the world would pay (some of them already do) to play. But what about the startups and smaller companies that have the potential to be the next Netflix? This is what longtime net neutrality proponents have been talking about: Pay to play could kill innovation.
And if the tolls start to hurt the big Internet companies’ bottom lines, it wouldn’t be a stretch to expect them to pass along those costs to us, their users, whether that’s in the form of higher subscription fees or downgraded or canceled services. In other words, we lose. And the double-dipping ISPs win.
Photo: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (Mark Wilson/Getty Images via Abaca Press/MCT)