Age of the Geek


The Internet's Premature Obituary


     I'll forgive you if you haven't been paying attention to the latest developments in the legal battle being waged in the name of Net Neutrality. Spring is coming after all. Maybe. Eventually.

     Did I hear it's going to snow again this week?

     Anyway, here's what has been going on.

     Details of a new proposal from the FCC were leaked last week regarding their next steps in defining what Internet Service Providers can and cannot do with the content running through their pipes.

     The actual proposal won't be released until May 15, but enough of it is out that pretty much every interested party on both sides has felt the need to weigh in. Myself included.

     Okay, good news first.

     The FCC's proposal reinstates the Open Internet rules that were stuck down by the courts earlier this year. Those rules will keep ISPs from throttling or blocking content so companies like Comcast or Time Warner won't be allowed to limit or deny access to content that goes against their own business interests.

     For example, Comcast owns NBC. It would be in their best interest if people were allowed to stream NBC shows at a high quality while making it so that shows streamed from ABC become a stuttering, low resolution, exercise in frustration.

     Without Net Neutrality, these Internet Service Providers would basically be allowed to set up an online version of a protection racket, extorting additional money out of content providers.

     "Nice content you've got there. Be a shame if our subscribers couldn't access it..."

     So that's the good news. Here's the bad.

     The proposal allows ISPs to establish "Internet Fast Lanes," which would allow ISPs to make arrangements with large content providers to pay extra for higher priority service.

     If that sounds a lot like the opposite of Net Neutrality, that's because it pretty much is.

     The "Internet Fast Lane" rule wouldn't be the immediate end of the Open Internet, but it would be the eventual end of it. Just like an online game with "pay to win" mechanics, the Fast Lane approach will create a standard expectation that segregates the Internet into those that can pay and those that can't. This would result in a new barrier of entry for new start-ups trying to compete with established content providers.

     Remember, once upon a time YouTube and Netflix were small start-ups. It would be a shame if the next big thing didn't happen because it was too expensive to get off the ground.

     FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has tried to defend the proposal, assuring people that ISPs will be required to be transparent about how they are running their networks and that they will not be allowed to operate in a "commercially unreasonable manner." Whatever that's supposed to mean.

     This "commercially unreasonable" test will be implemented on a case-by-case basis, which sounds like a lot of unnecessary bureaucracy when a completely open Internet would be the better and simpler option.

     Perhaps this is the best that the FCC can come up with in such a short amount of time. After all, right now the Internet is currently unregulated. Ideally, the FCC would regulate the Internet like the utility it should be, but that's going to be a long and expensive battle. This may be the only way to re-establish some Net Neutrality regulations before things get completely out of control.

     Current declarations of the Internet's death may be pre-mature, but at least it's raising awareness. We'll see next month what the FCC's plan really entails and where they plan to go from here.

     Travis Fischer is a news writer for Mid-America Publishing and doesn't know who to root for anymore. Probably whoever Netflix likes.