It’s finally over. Or at least a historical decision has been made in a 3-2 vote this week with the Federal Communications Commission approving the policy called net neutrality. The FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says the policy will ensure “that no one — whether government or corporate — should control free open access to the Internet.”
The vote secured what the FCC calls an open internet, a principle that prevents Internet Service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable from discriminating against the technology companies, websites, services, and apps that create content. It enforces equal treatment of the data from these companies, so, for example, Google doesn’t get priority over Netflix.
Without protections it is feared that small businesses and startups wouldn’t be able to compete, innovation would be discouraged, and the internet would no longer be equal playing ground. Small businesses who weren’t able to pay up (and can’t take their business elsewhere since there’s often no other broadband company who offers internet service) could see their websites slow to a crawl, causing users to shop elsewhere.
Was It Really the End of the Internet?
Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia who coined the phrase net neutrality, predicts the possible dire fate of the internet without FCC regulations. “I think the worst case is that we see the Internet kind of wither and disappear as a forum for free speech and new companies getting started, a world in which to get started it’s more like cable television, you need a lot of money to even open a website and really reach a number of users, that things become entrenched and kind of frozen.”
Because ISPs are typically not supporters of net neutrality, it was initially worrisome when President Obama picked Tom Wheeler, a former top lobbyist for cable and wireless companies, to be the next chair of the FCC.
John Oliver, British comedian and host of “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” weighed in on the debate with a thirteen minute segment devoted to net neutrality, possibly helping to turn the tide of the results at the time. Less than a year ago, with its new chair Wheeler at the helm, the FCC was deliberating on new rules to prioritize internet “fast lanes” for content providers who were willing and able to pay for it.
Oliver joked that hiring Wheeler was “the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo.” He then urged viewers to contact the FCC, which they did in droves, calling for net neutrality and reportedly crashing the site. Wheeler, it seems, was unperturbed, stating for the record that he is not a dingo.
It turns out that he most definitely isn’t a dingo, and small businesses can look forward to what some call unnecessary regulation by the FCC, where government bureaucracy will slow things down and prices for consumers will ultimately increase. We’ll find out soon enough if this is the price we pay for net neutrality.
“So today after a decade of debate in an open, robust year-long process, we finally have legally sustainable rules to ensure that the Internet stays fast, fair and open,” Wheeler said after the vote.
What Can You Expect From All This?
Without rules regulating ISPs, the concern is that they would force content providers to pay a premium for “fast lanes” in order to continue sending quality, high speed streaming to users. Small companies would only be able to afford paying for the second lane, or the slow lane, and be unable to compete with the high speed content delivery servers.
What is being protected according to NPR’s FCC fact sheet:
No blocking. Broadband providers aren’t allowed to block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
No throttling. Broadband providers aren’t allowed to impair or degrade lawful internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
No paid prioritization. Broadband providers aren’t allowed to favor some lawful internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration, i.e., “fast lanes.”
Supporters of net neutrality, oddly enough, include big tech companies like Google and Facebook. As Oliver says in his video, “It’s not just anticorporate hippies who think that abandoning net neutrality is a bad idea.” A two-tiered internet system with a fast and a slow lane, where the rich get fast internet and the not-so-rich get the slow internet, isn’t something anyone wants except the ISPs, because then they can charge more.
What Started All the Brouhaha?
Content providers like Netflix seemed to have tipped the scales in the net neutrality debate. As their popularity grows, the load of data they are sending out is overwhelming the ISP facilities and resulting in that buffering cycle you see when connection is slow.
The ISPs feel it’s only fair to charge these network-gobbling content providers a bigger fee. One solution outlined in Mashable’s video on how the internet works involves shortening the distance this data travels by having companies like Netflix and the ISPs have a peering or interconnection agreement.
The public got an eyeful of what net neutrality protections can do with this graph that Netflix made public. It shows how their download speeds declined during negotiations with Comcast for increased service fees, then skyrocketed once they paid up.
The tremors of this debate might have missed your doorstep, but they’ve been widely distributed on websites and social media. Companies banded together for Internet Slowdown day to show what it would be like if cable companies were allowed to charge for internet speeds. Netflix tweeted it’s sentiments with a dramatic show of slow speed traffic should regulations on the broadband providers not get passed.
What if the Internet was so slow it loaded one word at a time? Don’t let Comcast win. http://t.co/OCoIdQiIN3
— Netflix US (@netflix) February 25, 2015
The Battle for the Net has been won, at least for now. Enjoy the lack of interruption to your website’s speed.