Big telecom companies and the policy battle over net neutrality has been a relatively frequent topic on this blog (see here, here, and here), but the saga continues. So who’s shitting on your internet today? If you guessed “one of the main people in the entire U.S. government responsible for protecting your ability to get fast, affordable internet” you win a prize! This time it’s the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler –rather than the corporations themselves– really shitting on people’s internet!
Technology blog Arstechnica reports that Wheeler was recently quoted as saying he wouldn’t mind if companies like Comcast were able to charge companies like Netflix extra to get access to faster internet speeds required to keep up streaming video. Wheeler, newly appointed chair of the FCC, is charged with running the FCC and enforcing the current FCC Open Internet Order, a policy which mandates that the FCC guard against telecoms unfairly discriminating against certain types, providers, or carriers of internet traffic. Even as Verizon is currently challenging this policy in court, Wheeler discrediting the policy from inside the FCC with his recent statements. It should perhaps come as no surprise to you that before Wheeler assumed his current post as a regulator of communications, he was a lobbyist for…you guessed it…cable and wireless companies! Wheeler’s exact quote was this:
“I am a firm believer in the market. I think we’re also going to see a two-sided market where Netflix might say, ‘well, I’ll pay in order to make sure that you might receive, my subscriber receives, the best possible transmission of this movie.’ I think we want to let those kinds of things evolve. We want to observe what happens from that, and we want to make decisions accordingly, but I go back to the fact that the marketplace is where these decisions ought to be made, and the functionality of a competitive marketplace dictates the degree of regulation.”
So what’s the problem with this? Quite a lot actually.
- Bad for business: if companies like Verizon and Comcast can make other companies like Netflix and Youtube pay more for “faster channels” to their customers, big companies like Netflix and Youtube will gladly pay. But what if you’re a smaller company who wants to start a new internet business but needs faster data speeds? If you can’t afford the premiums these big telecoms will charge you, you’ll be SOL. In this environment, startups like Netflix and Youtube wouldn’t have a chance to compete and grow. This is bad for innovation.
- Bad for consumers: Let’s stick with Netflix here. So now, Netflix, which you already pay for, suddenly has to pay more money in order to deliver the same movies and TV shows to your eyeballs. Netflix isn’t going to just take the hit and shut up about it, it’s going to past the costs on to you so it can pay Verizon or Comcast or Time Warner. Okay, well now those big telecoms are making big money, right, so surely they’ll lower the costs to you on your monthly bill, right? Obviously not, so in the long run, you end up paying Verizon – or Comcast or Time Warner or Cox or whatever – twice instead of once in order to get a service you were already getting.
- We already have some of the worst and most expensive internet in the developed world: I’ve reported this a few times on this blog, but data shows that America is seriously lagging in the broadband world, and that on average, among developed countries, America ranks low on internet speed and high on internet cost. Essentially, we already pay too much for slow internet, so now we’ll be asked to pay more for the crappy internet we already have? Awesome!
- Potentially Politically Dangerous: If these big telecom companies can start making it harder or slower to access sites that don’t pay them more money, what about sites they don’t like? What if a site were advocating for municipal public internet service that would be cheaper and faster? Could your telecom slow down or block your access to that site so you couldn’t learn about it? Perhaps. I hate slippery slope arguments, so I don’t want to put too much emphasis on this point, except to say that these are very large and powerful companies with no qualms about doing whatever they have to in order to grow profits.
- Qui bono?: My latin sucks, but I’m pretty sure that means “who benefits?” and if you ask who benefits in this deal, it’s basically about six giant companies which already have massive profits will suddenly start making even more massive profits. If you still think this money will “trickle down” into the economy, I’m not sure we’re living in the same reality anymore.
So, in the end, Wheeler, a guy Obama nominated despite the Obama administration repeatedly announcing that they are supporters of net neutrality and an open and fair internet, is advocating for a market solution to a problem that doesn’t exist: namely, that companies which already pay to access the internet aren’t paying extra for that internet access. Verizon’s legal challenge to the Open Internet Order is still pending, but with guys like Tom Wheeler on the side that’s supposed to be protecting the public interest, no matter which way this case goes I’d say net neutrality advocates have a tough fight ahead and will have to hope the president remains true to his word about his stance in support of net neutrality. It’s worth noting that this also illustrates the cancer that is the Washington system which sets up a revolving door between political leadership, corporate lobbying, and public oversight. Gross.
TL;DR The guy charged with protecting our nation’s open internet is now actively shitting on the concept of our nation’s open internet.