At the moment, your Internet generally works like this: You pay a company -- AT&T, or Comcast, or Verizon, or Time Warner -- for monthly online access. Once you're connected, you can go to whatever legally permissible website your heart desires and, whether it's the New York Times or Netflix, it takes you the same amount of time no matter where you're trying to go. Access is equal; that's the principle of "net neutrality," the concept that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.
But the Federal Communications Commission is on its way to dismantling that concept entirely. The Commission, which has spent the better part of the past decade trying to define "fairness" on the Internet, said on Wednesday that it would propose new rules that would allow companies like Disney, Google and Netflix to pay Internet service providers for faster lanes to send video and other content to consumers.
From the New York Times:
Tom Wheeler, the F.C.C. chairman, defended the agency's plans late Wednesday, saying speculation that the F.C.C. was "gutting the open Internet rule" is "flat out wrong." Rather, he said, the new rules will provide for net neutrality along the lines of the appeals court's decision.
Still, the regulations could radically reshape how Internet content is delivered to consumers. For example, if a gaming company cannot afford the fast track to players, customers could lose interest and its product could fail.
The rules are also likely to eventually raise prices as the likes of Disney and Netflix pass on to customers whatever they pay for the speedier lanes, which are the digital equivalent of an uncongested car pool lane on a busy freeway.
Interestingly, Netflix made news this week by publicly denouncing Comcast's proposed merger with Time Warner, the country's largest cable provider. In a letter to investors, the online streaming company argued that the deal would give Comcast unprecedented control over Internet access in the U.S. They also had the evidence to prove it: Two months ago Netflix agreed to pay Comcast for faster Internet access for its consumers, a deal that will ultimately lead to the company passing the buck to subscribers, who would have to pay higher monthly fees.
What's already happening with Netflix and Comcast is a nightmare scenerio for those who've been fighting for the open Internet, particularly for artists and people of color for which the Internet has been a democratizing platform. As Jay Cassano and Michael Brooks wrote recently at In These Times:
When it comes to accessing the Internet, mobile-phone networks are of particular importance to marginalized communities, including people of color and those with lower incomes. A recent Pew surveyfound that a full 21 percent of cell phone owners in the United States mostly use their phones to access the Internet, as opposed to a desktop or a laptop. The elimination of net neutrality for cell phones could make conducting essential activities, such as applying for jobs or furthering one's education, much harder if service providers chose to block access to those necessary sites.
The Pew study also found that "young adults, non-whites, and those with relatively low income and education levels are particularly likely to be cell-mostly Internet users"--and it's people in those demographic groups who will therefore be stuck at the lowest tier of access. Advocacy groups also worry that ISPs will use their powers of prioritization to silence activists working toward social justice, particularly in communities of color.
The FCC's move signals a shift away from how we've expected the Internet to work.
"A free market based on competition and entrepreneurship depends on the ability for anyone to bring the next great product, idea or innovation to the marketplace," Casey Rae, the interim executive director of the Future of Music Coalition said in a press release. "A society that respects its creators must not place access to culture in the hands of just few massive companies. These proposed rules not only don't go far enough to safeguard consumers, they actively marginalize smaller and independent voices."
The proposed rules will be released on Thursday and will be available for public comment until May 15. The Commission is likely to vote on the rules by the end of this year.