Is Internet Freedom Under Threat From Internet Service Providers? [MUO Debates]
Imagine a world where the content you view on the Internet is tightly controlled by your Internet service provider. What would you say if I told you that world is now a reality?
Case in point — in January of 2014, a U.S. Federal Court rejected FCC “net-neutrality ” regulations, which would enforce rules requiring Internet service providers to enable access to all online content and applications regardless of the information or the source. Favoring, blocking or manipulating service quality for particular services or content would be prohibited.
While the United States does not create the rules for Internet access across the entire world, it does often influence how rules are implemented elsewhere. The headquarters of most major online services are in the United States. This could mean that ISPs influencing content delivery of information could affect the rest of the world as well.
The question everyone is asking right now is whether the lack of regulation is going to lead to ISP’s like Verizon immediately implementing service controls that negatively influence the quality of services like Netflix or Hulu, in favor of the digital streaming services offered by the ISP or its partners? Will the Internet service companies increase profits by demanding those companies pay them “service delivery” fees? Will Internet users like you and I have to start paying higher fees for access to those services?
These are the questions we’re exploring in today’s MUO Debates forum. Please check out how MUO authors feel this will change online freedom to information, and then offer your own opinion in the comments area. Don’t forget to cast your vote at the end of this debate as well!
George Root – Google, Amazon and Others Will Fight Back
I think that providers such as Verizon completely underestimate the financial strength of Google, Amazon, and other large websites. It may be more beneficial for Google to expand its current provider network than pay Verizon more money to do something that should be free.
It seems that many of the larger ISPs are also cable television providers who are used to regulating the kind of content that people can see on their televisions. In that respect, cable television providers are a lot like the music industry in that neither is able to accept the fact that they have to evolve to survive the changes the Internet brings, instead of trying to alter the Internet to their liking.
Of course, the fear is that Google starts its own ISP and suddenly websites start paying a premium to get seen on the larger Google network, but that already happens now to an extent. If I wanted my website to be seen by millions of users everyday, I could pay Google a ton of money and my website would have traffic. But it is that organic piece of web traffic growth that allows content to bring in traffic over time, which keeps people going.
In the end, I think that issues like this are resolved by the undying notion that the Internet should be a level playing field for everyone. If Verizon tries to squeeze websites to be seen on the larger network, then another Internet network will pop up that does not charge that premium. Greed will only take a company so far. After all, these are techies that Verizon is messing with and the techies always know a way around everything.
Ryan – Cable Company Tactics Are The Problem
One of my biggest concerns with Net Neutrality (or lack thereof) is that the Internet will become just like cable television. In fact, it may well be the existence of the cable company fiefdoms in most local areas that leads to the problems from a lack of Net Neutrality.
What if your ISP decides that it wants to impede your video stream from Netflix, while providing a full, open bandwidth to its own competing video streaming features? Netflix has publicly stated that it fears this. What can you do? Switch your ISP? Many people don’t have a choice because, again, the same cable companies control the system. If you’re lucky, you may be able to switch to a DSL phone-based service — but again, that ISP could now take the same bandwidth-throttling tactics as well.
The danger isn’t so much that the cable company will try to filter or control specific content through pricing like it does with its existing programming. The danger is that it will try to sway the trend of customers downgrading cable packages and migrating over to Netflix and other video streaming services for content. Now, the cable companies are not legally barred from making the quality of those competing services so horrible that consumers are forced to drudge on back to Momma Cable Company — the borderline-illegal monopoly in nearly every community.
It appears that our one ray of hope for escape from those monopolies — online video streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime — is now threatened by the U.S. government’s lack of backbone in properly regulating those major cable/ISP companies.
Bruce Epper – Infrastructure Impedes Competition
George: I think you are avoiding what is probably the biggest issue here. What happens when the local cable company and/or the local telecom are blocking all streaming video services that are competing with them or rate-limiting them to such an extent that they are effectively unusable? Now, all broadband providers in the local area will allow you to use their streaming video only.
This happened with Comcast back in 2010 when they were blocking Netflix from their customers by extorting/blackmailing the Netflix partner, Level 3, to pay a recurring fee to allow them to “transmit Internet online movies and other content to Comcast’s customers who request such content.”As far as another network popping up to take the place of what is being taken from us, who will install the infrastructure for this?
After all, these telecoms and cable companies currently own the entire “last mile” networks, and with the court ruling regarding the FCC’s net neutrality rules being shot down since they are not considered “common carrier” networks, how do you expect people to be able to connect to the “new Internet” that you believe will spring up to replace what has been lost?
Now, most broadband providers have data caps on their Internet plans. In March 2012, Comcast announced that customers with the Xfinity app on the XBox who are XBox Live subscribers and have another cable box with Xfinity will not have their streaming video data applied against their cap, yet Netflix and Hulu will still be affected. This is another area where Verizon’s idea of a “two-sided market” will really benefit the culture of corporate greed: these providers will charge the provider a premium to carry their content to the consumer while charging the consumer a premium to have this content delivered to them unhindered by the carrier’s network.
I’d love to be sitting in a C-level office at any major ISP since this ruling came out. In the next few years, the bonuses will be astounding.
James Bruce – Net Neutrality Won’t Matter
I think net neutrality won’t matter in the long run. I mentioned this on the podcast the other day, but Google is going to swing the game right back around with their broadband speed rankings from YouTube play stats. Instead of Google having to pay ISPs to deliver YouTube videos, it’ll be the ISPs paying Google to establish faster backbones to the YouTube servers, thereby ranking themselves higher on the list as the consumer choice. You can bet that when they’re listed lower down, customers switching away from them for higher ranked ISPs will be significant (assuming equal market forces of course, and that there is actually competition).
Of course, this does nothing to help other services like Netflix, but one can imagine a meta ranking site that draws upon speed results from all the popular services. The establishment of no legal net neutrality law will only serve to push these rankings into existence where before they weren’t needed.
Never underestimate the power of a popular ranking list: companies will fall over themselves and throw money at you to get higher on the list.
Guy McDowell – What If ISPs Try Toppling Google?
Playing the devil’s advocate, what would happen if the largest ISPs squeeze out Google? Is Google ready to run in and save the day, and save themselves before that could happen? If I were to control a major ISP and your Web usage, I’m also going to control your search engine choices, as well as your streaming media choices.
The major ISPs will recognize that there would be a backlash if they tried to restrict our Internet travels too dramatically, too quickly. Instead, I envision them playing the game the same way they did with cable television. They tried to make us want cable for content that you couldn’t get over-the-air. Many of us, for a long time, had both over-the-air and cable, it was the best of both worlds. The over-the-air networks noticed that we were watching cable more and more, so they wanted to be on cable as well. Then cable started providing the same content as over-the-air but with better transmission quality, so we stopped buying antennas or TV sets that could tap into the over-the-air signal. Now, we’re stuck with cable. Yes, you can still get over-the-air if you want to go through the hassle of setting that up, but most people simply don’t.
Why wouldn’t they do the same with Internet access? Give us premium content as well as the free stuff, and then gradually the free content is going to want to make the money that the premium content does. Introduce moderate throttling on the free content, so it works, but just not quite as good as the premium. Then the pressure will be from both the content provider and the consumer to have the content in the premium category.
If I were an evil media magnate, that’s what I would do.
I suspect that some people would develop ways around it, or local alternate access means. Smaller ISPs would initially thrive on the fact that they don’t restrict content, but they would eventually be bought out by the large ISPs. Then, in say 10-20 years, we’ll just accept that this is the way things are, and we’ll probably convince ourselves that we like it that way, too!
Justin Pot – This is Already Happening
To an extent, Guy, this is already happening. Here in the U.S. you can’t watch any Olympic content online unless you first prove that you are a paying customer of a cable or satellite TV provider (and even if you do, the service is laughable compared to what CBC is offering up in your home and my native land).
The company with broadcasting rights to the games here in the states? NBC, a division of Comcast, a cable company beloved for its customer service reputation. Comcast also limits the bandwidth of its home users, but makes one exception: it’s own streaming service, which is heavy in NBC content.
The cable company owns one of the major broadcasters, and is already now using that fact to its own advantage. And now a legal shackle has been taken away from them.
Competition is all well and good, but effectively doesn’t exist in most of the country. These companies are lobbying state governments to ban municipal broadband, and Google can only lay so much line so quickly. Net neutrality helped make the Internet what it is, and it’s going away. It’s unclear if a startup like YouTube will be able to take the net by storm ten years from now, or if the tiered Internet will make any newcomer so slow as to be useless.
Conclusion – What Do You Think?
Does the lack of regulations requiring fair access to information on the Internet mean the death of Internet freedom ? Is the Internet now going to be transformed into yet another corporate-run information portal controlled by those with the most money? Or, will none of this matter at all? Will things just stay the same? Cast your vote and then give us your take on the matter in the comments section below!