Today, the FCC voted to consider chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to roll back Obama-era regulations that protected the open internet, despite overwhelming objection from the American people. Most people will blow this move off as a nerd matter, but the open internet is hugely important to the general populace.
Open internet, or net neutrality, is the principle that all internet traffic is treated exactly the same; your ISP can’t, for example, charge you to access certain websites, or charge websites for faster access to you. Pai’s proposal would end the classification of your internet provider as a “common carrier,” which allows the FCC to implement net neutrality rules.
Pai wants to replace the current system with, basically, a pinky swear that internet providers won’t charge websites for faster loading times or otherwise monkey with websites, and would deal with these issues on a case-by-case basis. The FCC has yet to change any rules. But they are considering it.
Looking at Netflix offers a good example of what’s going on, because they — more than any other company — rely on net neutrality. Netflix takes up roughly 35% of all “peak” internet traffic, and that’s put it at odds with internet providers, who complain Netflix is getting a free ride on their networks. Netflix, for its part, has been trying to optimize traffic so ISPs experience less strain.
The dirty truth about ISPs is that they use a practice called “oversubscription” for consumer internet connections. Instead of upgrading their infrastructure to handle their customers, they simply gamble enough customers won’t be using the internet at any given time to slow down internet speeds. And internet providers have little interest in building more infrastructure, unless the government forces them to. As Netflix becomes more popular, that’s a bigger and bigger gamble because more people are online during peak hours. Maddeningly, most Americans can’t take their business elsewhere, as many ISPs hold an effective monopoly.
It would be one thing if there was strong competition among internet providers. But there isn’t, and it’s unlikely to manifest soon. Building new networks is expensive, so much so that even Google can’t afford it, and internet providers have been fighting cities building their own networks tooth and nail. Others, such as Verizon, will only build their FiOS network where it’s profitable, leaving communities behind. And most internet providers have exclusive rights to the current networks, thanks to how the cables were first strung.
Despite what Pai believes, there’s no reason to give internet providers any benefit of the doubt when it comes to an open internet, especially if they offer services that compete with a third party. Again, Netflix is a superb example. Verizon choked off Netflix’s speeds in order to make people use its video-on-demand services, and when Netflix began telling Verizon subscribers this, Verizon threatened them with a lawsuit. Comcast counted Netflix streams against a data cap, but not its own streaming video services, before Netflix ultimately agreed to “paid peering” from Comcast.
In order to stop Pai, score of people are filing comments on the proposal on the FCC’s website. Since the FCC doesn’t make this particularly easy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has tried to simplify the process. Other net nuetrality advocates are calling Congresspersons and Senators.