True ‘net neutrality’ needed for a level playing field

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“Net neutrality” is the principle that all Internet data should be treated equally. For the past 25 years, the Internet has functioned as an open network, where all users could browse to all corners of the Web. The other side of the coin is a closed network, such as cable television, where content providers and end users both pay for increased access.

It’s the Internet’s open architecture that allows websites to compete on a level playing field. Sure, Google, Facebook and Amazon are giants walking among the peasants. Yet, despite their size, they’re not crushing competitors by forcing them out of the market. Facebook is still a single Web address, equally accessible as any startup, and if users begin flocking to alternate sites, major players often pay big money to acquire their competition rather than risk becoming the next MySpace.

Netflix accounts for approximately one-third of all Internet traffic. Last fall, Comcast began refusing to internally support increased traffic from Netflix, eventually rendering Netflix’s streaming service unusable and causing customers to cancel their subscriptions. One-third of all traffic might seem significant, but with a Net-neutral architecture, the source of the data is irrelevant — it all must be delivered to the customer equally. Thus, both parties have a vested interest in delivering that data in the most efficient manner possible, and they do this through a process known as peering. Netflix offered Comcast two no-cost peering options, local data centers or in-house file-hosting. Comcast, however, refused to peer until Netflix agreed to pay a substantial fee. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says Comcast used its monopoly power to exact a toll for access to consumers, and he’s advocating for net neutrality protection against source-based data discrimination.

A lack of Net neutrality also opens the door for content-based discrimination. Verizon, in its lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission, claimed that Internet service providers have a First Amendment right to exert “editorial discretion” over Internet content. This might prove problematic (Verizon v. FCC; see page 42). For example, how much would an oil company pay to scrub the Web of all content related to a disastrous oil spill? Eventually, the Supreme Court will decide whether Verizon’s free speech on the Internet overrides the free speech of millions of Americans; just don’t expect the justices to appreciate the Internet as much as younger generations. As Justice Elena Kagan noted in 2013, “The court hasn’t ‘gotten to’ email yet.”

The journey toward commercializing the Internet began long ago, when President Bill Clinton signed into law the bipartisan Telecommunications Act of 1996, a deregulatory measure that promised to save consumers $78 billion over 10 years through less-expensive cable bills while simultaneously adding 1.5 million jobs to the economy. Instead, the opposite occurred: mass consolidation. By 2003, the telecommunications industry had lost half a million jobs, and cable rates had skyrocketed by 50 percent. The act also classified broadband providers as information services, exempting them from traditional voice and video regulation. Eighteen years later, it turns out that classification was a big deal.

On Jan. 14, a federal appeals court repealed the FCC’s flimsy rule protecting the open Internet. However, the court offered a simple path to restoring Net neutrality. The FCC simply needs to reclassify broadband providers from information services to telecommunications services, subjecting them to “common carrier” standards. Instead, newly appointed FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler — an Obama campaign bundler and longtime lobbyist for the telecom industry — proposed pseudo-Net neutrality rules that allow for prioritization. Wheeler calls his proposal “Net neutrality,” but it is not.

Prioritization is problematic for several reasons. First, it creates a fast lane and a slow lane. Second, prioritization incentivizes bad infrastructure because the slower the slow lane, the easier it will be to sell access to the fast lane. Third, studies show that users won’t wait longer for websites to load. Microsoft engineers found that a mere quarter-second variance in load time creates a competitive advantage. Fourth, venture capitalists already have expressed concern about investing in startup companies that need substantial bandwidth, such as streaming services, because of the potential prohibitive cost of prioritized access. Finally, when slow-lane content creators such as bloggers and podcasters receive fewer and fewer hits, they’ll have zero incentive to create new content.

If that happens, then the Internet starts to look a lot like cable television: fewer channels, restricted access and higher barriers to market entry.

Internet users overwhelmingly in support of Net neutrality flooded the FCC with more than 3 million comments regarding Wheeler’s proposed rules. The FCC plans on making a decision by the end of this year. If Wheeler’s proposal moves forward, devout Net neutrality proponents such as Wikipedia, Netflix and Reddit are likely to choose a day to “go black” in hopes of sparking public and political outcry for preserving the open Internet.

Enjoy it while you can.

This article was originally published in the Columbia Tribune.

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