Author: Dana Ettinger, Johns Hopkins
On June 1, Internet commenters crashed the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) website. They were participating in the public comment period for a new rule proposed in April that would allow broadband Internet providers to build faster connection lanes and charge companies more for the right to use them. This new rule claims to protect net neutrality, but in reality it is a big victory for its opponents, Internet service providers (ISPs). On the surface, this might seem like a simple regulatory quirk, hardly worthy of a heated debate. The implications, however, are staggering. The new rule creates a “pay for play” system in which ISPs could charge more for faster download speeds.
What is “net neutrality,” and where did it come from? Net neutrality is the generally accepted principle that all traffic on the Internet, regardless of content or source, should be treated equally. The debate over its merits began in 2002 when the FCC began deregulating cable Internet access, differentiating the treatment of cable Internet access from that of DSL connections (Internet access via telephone networks). Three years later, the FCC released its first “proto-net neutrality” rules and began the deregulation of DSL. In 2007, Bittorrent filed complaints against Comcast, accusing the ISP of interfering with traffic on its website. The next year, the FCC prohibited Comcast from discriminating against Bittorent traffic. Comcast appealed the decision to the D.C. District court, which ruled in its favor and undermined the FCC’s authority over the maintenance of net neutrality. In response, the FCC Chair advocated for reclassifying Internet services as telecommunications, but his proposal was denied. At the close of 2010, the Open Internet Rules were released. They included the three principles of “transparency, no blocking, and no unreasonable discrimination,” and were supposed to go into effect in November 2011. Verizon challenged the FCC’s authority to oppose these rules in court; simultaneously, AT&T began blocking FaceTime unless users subscribed to a “Mobile Share” plan. However, they eventually agreed to cease and desist.
At the beginning of this year, the D.C. District Court ruled against the FCC once again, claiming that if it wanted to preserve net neutrality, Internet access had to be classified as a telecommunications service rather than an information service. In May, the new proposal was released, and while it tentatively mentions reclassifying Internet access as telecommunications, this was overshadowed by the tacit support of the creation of “fast lanes” and “slow lanes.” These would effectively allow ISPs to charge websites a premium to download faster for users on their networks.
If approved, the proposed rule would have several implications. First, broadband companies could slow down Internet speeds for companies that do not pay the premium. This has already happened. While in negotiations over a potential “fast lane,” Comcast and Verizon slowed down Netflix customers’ connections. Download speeds dropped by 30 percent on Comcast networks, according to a graph published in The Washington Post. Once Netflix reached an agreement with them, speeds skyrocketed by 50 percent to levels even faster than before the slow-down. This is blatant extortion: Comcast was holding connection speeds hostage in order to force Netflix to pay them more money.
Even more insidiously, charging a premium for faster download speeds acts as an entry barrier for new Internet startups. Industry giants like Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon can obviously afford to pay for faster connections for their customers. A new startup, however, will have a much more difficult time paying the premium. Consequently, competition would be drastically reduced. Furthermore, Internet services might raise prices, and some sites might start charging for content that had been free in the past. ISPs would profit from charging websites simply for providing the connection, and many sites could be forced to pass that cost on to the consumer. YouTube is one of the most commonly cited examples of this fear.
This rule, if passed, will make the Internet inherently unequal. Those who can afford to pay will have faster Internet, while those who cannot will see their speed significantly reduced. In addition to indirectly pressuring websites to charge consumers for access, this would effectively create a two-tiered system of access to Internet content. One of the Internet’s greatest blessings is its ability to freely disseminate information – but if some people couldn’t afford access to that information, we would lose a significant tool for education.
The new rule would allow ISPs to extort Internet companies, which would both reduce competition and force previously free websites to charge users. The historic actions of Comcast, Verizon and AT&T show that ISPs have no scruples about holding the Internet hostage in exchange for ransom, and allowing special fast lanes would simply make policies like that legal. In addition to being an imposition on consumers, new fees for Internet connections would both hinder the development of new startups as well as cripple the Internet’s potential as a tool for low-cost education. There is hope from outside the FCC: In June, Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act, designed to combat paid prioritization. Whether or not it is approved, the politicians are taking a step in the right direction, which cannot be said of the FCC. Hopefully, however, they will realize that a two-tiered system is antithetic to the Internet as we know it and will choose not to proceed with their plan.