Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dropping the Net

I am sure that you have seen the term "net neutrality" in passing. You probably skimmed right past it or made a brief and unsuccessful effort to grasp its significance. It is a vague and bland term that belies its own importance.

Make no mistake: It is one of the most important civil rights issues of the 21st century.

Now, I am no law student and I do not claim to know the history of media law particularly well. I believe, however, that lay people can easily understand what is at stake here. They must, as it affects the way every American consumes information in the Internet Age. Net neutrality is a movement designed to ensure that the internet remains an unadulterated resource, giving an equal voice to lone citizens and huge multinationals alike. Such a subject may seem slightly beyond the scope of this blog, but it directly affects every industry this blog covers, as well as the blog itself.

In the United States, today's internet is an aberration. It is the only media service that we receive completely unfiltered. We pay a flat fee and we get access to the entirety of the internet at a set speed. Providers have no control over how we access their service or what we use their service to access, as long as we are not breaking any laws. This can make life hard for them. Modern uses of the internet, such as streaming video, peer-to-peer sharing and online gaming, are putting increasing strain on their networks. Companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon do not understand why a person who pushes gigabytes of information through BitTorrent or Limewire should get to pay the same amount of money as someone who simply checks their e-mail a few times a week. It costs them more, so why should it not cost us more?

It sounds like a perfectly innocent gripe. Allowing companies to take away a bit of our freedom for the sake of a little common business sense is not without precedent, either. We get charged extra for calling certain people. We have to pay extra to see certain television channels. Why should we not pay extra for using specific aspects of the internet?

This is why:

This is tiered internet – an internet where access to sites is purchased like access to cable channels. Like Facebook? Buy the Social Network package for just $5 per month! Want to watch your favorite network shows for free (with ads)? Get the Hollywood package! Want to use the file sharing networks you love? We're sorry, but Telco has discontinued this service due to lack of popularity! This image (courtesy of Gizmodo) is merely a hypothetical – a worst-case scenario – but, with internet providers chipping away at net neutrality, it is only becoming more plausible. Not bothered by this image? It is easy to get distracted by what is on this list and forget what is not: Namely, every other site on the internet.

Sure, they would make the cut now, but twenty years ago, upstarts like Yahoo and Google would have no chance of gaining the popularity necessary to become part of an internet provider's tiered service. How could they become well known if they could not be widely accessed from their birth? Tiered internet would destroy the level playing field that is today's internet. No conglomerate is going to think up the next Twitter, Facebook or Netflix. Under such a structure, the internet would quickly become the sort of bland landscape of corporately-managed mediocrity that is basic cable.

Tiered internet seems like a far cry from slapping bandwith gluttons with surcharges, but one look at Comcast makes this all too plausible. In the next few months, this internet provider will come into majority ownership of NBC Universal. Comcast is traditionally a cable company and, now, it will own a massive media company. In other words, Comcast will own companies that make content, own companies that sell the content to networks, own networks that air the content and own the company that brings those networks to your home.

If that sounds like some horrible excerpt from the pages of 1984, congratulations – you are still sane. This, however, is nothing new. After all, NBC Universal had the first three pieces of that puzzle before Comcast even came to the table; media companies have been consolidating their power for years. Robert Smigel's Saturday TV Funhouse segment of Saturday Night Live once parodied this, but the sketch was never reaired and is nigh impossible to find on major video sites:

The video's harshest accusations are tough to prove, but its broader point is not. When a company can pursue its vested interests without losing money, it has no reason to consider anyone else's interests, including the public's. Arguably, Comcast is about to gain more control over the ideas to which this country is exposed than any single entity has ever had. What if there is something they do not want us to know? Will we ever have a chance at hearing about it? Right now, the internet ensures that we would.

The internet is one of the few (or possibly the only) facet of modern media that is too large for any media company to comfortably wrap its tentacle around. It is the product of total anarchy, not the oligarchy that dominates all other media. Yet Comcast is attempting to impose order. The company recently won a federal court case wherein they claimed that the FCC had no right to prevent them from blocking users' access to peer-to-peer sharing sites.

In 2005, the FCC publicly adopted policy that was designed to protect net neutrality. This policy was defined with four points:
  • Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice;
  • Consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement;
  • Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; and
  • Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.
It failed to address the possibility that providers could simply bring traffic to certain sites to a crawl, but it was a good start. Yet there was no legal basis for this policy. As a result, when the FCC attempted to impose the policy upon Comcast, it failed.

The fact of the matter is that, in recent years, Washington has struggled to regulate the internet with laws that predate it. The few laws that have been passed seem to only hinder the rights of the average citizen. Currently, internet services are regulated by the same lax regulations that cable services are. Numerous attempts at legislating net neutrality over the past five years have proven fruitless. President Obama has claimed that net neutrality is a priority for him, but a bill has yet to be introduced under his administration.

Current laws will likely fail to stand between companies like Comcast and tiered internet, but new laws seem very far off.

If you look back up at that fictional price list, you will see the popular video streaming site Hulu. It is partly owned by NBC and therefore, will be partly owned by Comcast in short order. If Comcast were to introduce a tiered pricing structure like the one above, you can be sure that Hulu would be front and center and that any video site that they do not like would disappear from 15 million computers.

For Comcast, it would mean their tightly controlled media pipeline would now encompass the internet, as well. For us, it would mean the death of an equal-opportunity internet. The internet is the best thing that has ever happened to free speech, as well as free enterprise. Thus far, few entities have encroached on this most important of resources. If Comcast and similar companies continue to make progress, you can be sure that this resource will quickly dry up. Only an educated electorate can stand in their way.

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