Over the past couple of decades, the internet has shifted from a useful luxury to a necessary part of our lives. The vast majority of us come into contact with the internet in some way every day, and in this generation, it seems impossible to get by without the internet. I, for one, have been using the computer on a daily basis since I was around four years old. Throughout this time period, we have been able to use the internet with a remarkable amount of stability; however, due to a policy proposed by the new chairman of the FCC, this stability could soon come to an end.
The issue is known as Net Neutrality. Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers don’t discriminate against the people they provide to, or the data that they provide. Think of it as everybody receiving data at the same speed, regardless of who they are, or what service they are using. Many people don’t really care about this, due to the fact that it sounds incredibly dull and uninteresting, but think about it. How often do you check your Facebook, stream videos on Youtube or Netflix, or download music? It’s most likely more than once a day. With the internet becoming more and more of a necessity each year, it would be hard for this issue to have a greater effect on you.
So what’s the problem? In November 2013, President Obama appointed Tom Wheeler as the new Chairman of the Federal Communications Commision, or the FCC. Interestingly, Tom Wheeler has previously worked as a lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry–the industry that provides you with internet–and has held high-ranking positions such as President of the National Cable Television Association, and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. In April of this year, Wheeler stirred up controversy when his FCC proposed a policy that would allow Broadband internet service providers the “right to build special lanes” with higher internet speeds for companies that are willing to pay more money.1 On May 15th, the FCC voted 3-2 to continue with the proposal that could lead to these special lanes being built.
Imagine this: If a company, such as Netflix, pays more money for an internet “fast lane” than another video streaming service that doesn’t pay for one, then Netflix will be able to send more data, faster. Now imagine you use the streaming service that didn’t pay for faster speeds. You’ll still get the data you’re streaming, but not nearly as fast as a person with Netflix would, which leaves you with everyone’s worst nightmare, video buffering. Soon enough, any company that didn’t pay for that “fast lane” will be idling in a “slow lane” that is completely unable to compete with the faster connection speeds of companies that did pay. This sounds like a complete violation of the principle of Net Neutrality, or all data being treated equally.
Another issue with having to do with Net Neutrality is that of Bandwith throttling. Bandwith throttling is when an Internet service provider intentionally slows down Internet service. Now imagine again that you’re using one of those streaming services that didn’t pay for an internet fast lane. An Internet service provider, let’s say Comcast, is negotiating payments with said streaming service. Let’s say Comcast desperately wants more money from this company, so instead of just leaving their connection speed alone, Comcast actually slows down their speed, causing consumers’ download speeds to suffer. Some might think that this assertion is ridiculous, but this interesting graph proves otherwise.2 Strangely, when Comcast was negotiating for a deal with Netflix, Netflix download speeds gradually plummeted. But when the companies reached an agreement in February of this year, all of a sudden Netflix download speeds skyrocketed. It is true that Netflix takes up a massive amount of data in its own right, and perhaps should pay more, but the graph clearly shows Comcast discriminating against the data that Netflix puts out, which is another violation of the concept of Net Neutrality. Not to mention the fact that millions of people were forced to sit in agony and wait for their videos to download at a much slower speed, which, in a society that has come to expect instant results, is more annoying than you might think. All of this just so Comcast could get more money out of Netflix.
Now don’t just limit this to Netflix and other video streaming companies. This could potentially happen with any company that’s willing to pay more than their competitors for a “fast lane”, including Disney and Google. However, it is important to remember that this policy has not been approved yet, and that it is still possible to prevent it from being passed. Recently, the FCC had been accepting comments on “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet” until July 15.3 The response was overwhelming, with late-night talk show host John Oliver causing fans to crash the FCC’s website.
- Edward Wyatt, F.C.C., in a Shift, Backs Fast Lanes for Web Traffic, NY Times (NY Times Apr 23, 2014), online at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/24/technology/fcc-new-net-neutrality-rules.html?_r=0 (visited July 15, 2014). [↩]
- Max Ehrenfreund, This hilarious graph of Netflix speeds shows the importance of net neutrality, The Wonk Blog (The Washington Post Apr 25, 2014), online at http://knowmore.washingtonpost.com/2014/04/25/this-hilarious-graph-of-netflix-speeds-shows-the-importance-of-net-neutrality/ (visited July 15, 2014). [↩]
- Edward Wyatt, F.C.C. Backs Opening Net Neutrality Rules for Debate, NY Times (NY Times May 15, 2014), online at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/16/technology/fcc-road-map-to-net-neutrality.html (visited July 15, 2014). [↩]