"Remember, folks—I gave you the internet, and I can take it away." Those were the words David Letterman jokingly put in Al Gore's mouth during an appearance from the latter on Late Night. And while no one is really going to take your internet away, an ongoing battle in U.S. courts may influence the way it is delivered to you.
To date the internet has been operating under the principle of net neutrality, whereby all content providers are treated equally; this means that Core77's homepage is delivered to you as quickly as Netflix's, as we and them are viewed as equal. (We may not have House of Cards, but hey, we have "True I.D. Stories.") But yesterday the Federal Communications Commission put forth a proposal that would allow ISPs to charge providers more to deliver their content faster, essentially providing "fast lanes" to whomever's got the money.
On its face that might not sound so outrageous, as it seems akin to a motorist paying more to use the Midtown Tunnel instead of sitting in traffic on the Queensboro Bridge; but it's got folks up in arms, as a closer examination of the proposal raises some troubling questions. One sticking point in particular is the wording of the proposal, which states that service providers dole out these new charges "in a commercially reasonable manner." While this sounds like it is intended to promote some level of fairness—i.e. Core77 can't afford to pay what Google can, so howzabout cutting Core77 a break on the fast-lane price?—even a little scrutiny raises thorny issues. For example, internet service provider Comcast happens to own NBCUniversal; couldn't their lawyers argue that it's "commercially reasonable" for Comcast to charge Disney-ABC more, in order to protect their subsidiary's interests and gain a competitive advantage?The issue is a complicated one, to be sure. And while your fervent Facebook feed will likely be clogged with sensational headlines painting the FCC as the bad guy, even that issue is not so black-and-white; it can fairly be said that the FCC is merely trying to cope with a federal appeals court ruling from earlier this year, which struck down the FCC's Open Internet policy promoting net neutrality. A legal blog would do a better job in going over the finer points of that case, but in broad strokes, the court ruled that the internet isn't a public utility like water, and thus the FCC has no right to demand providers give everyone the same amount of pipe. For their part, the FCC argues that they're actually trying to protect net neutrality while working within the constraints of the court ruling. "The same rules will apply to all Internet content," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. "As with the original open Internet rules, and consistent with the court's decision, behavior that harms consumers or competition will not be permitted."
As for how this is all going to play out, we'll have to wait a bit longer. The FCC proposal is currently being circulated within the agency, and will be released for public scrutiny on May 15th.
You can learn more about the subject at these links:
The Wall Street Journal (subscribers only)