The FCC is Condoning Extortion

By Aleksi Lepisto in Opinion

The “Information Superhighway” was a commonly used term back in ye olde ‘90s to define the Internet. I think there might be more behind that phrase than it appears, though.

The Federal Communications Commission recently cast a 3-2 vote to open a proposal to public comment regarding the classification of the Internet and the potential for regulated speed “lanes” for web traffic.

Some companies, primarily Internet service providers, say that speed lane agreements with content providers should be allowed. These agreements would enable prioritization of web traffic over other traffic, creating faster routes to services that pay a fee to the ISP.

Some experts have likened the idea to that of a gatekeeper.

You get packages delivered by a mail service. The delivery truck is allowed into your driveway immediately because they pay your security company a fee for this priority service.

Your friends, although good people, do not. So when they arrive, the security company forces them to wait outside for a set period of time, even while no one else is waiting and no packages are being delivered.

This new determination, which again, has only been proposed by the FCC, says that companies can make deals with other companies to provide specified services faster than others, regardless of your connection speed. So you might be getting 15 Mbps to Netflix but your ISP might throttle your connection to Hulu to 10 Mbps instead — assuming Netflix pays for the priority service and Hulu does not.

It’s a subtle difference to most, but the ramifications could be huge.

Currently you pay for connection at various speed tiers. This varies on a number of factors that could be quite confusing.

The key point is that the speed you pay for, or rather, the speed you are getting applies evenly to all of your incoming data. Some sites may load faster, but that’s based on their general bandwidth and yours.

Although it doesn’t seem drastic initially, the road this could lead us down would be a huge black eye to freedom of information. What happens when certain news organizations, which are content providers, are given more priority than others? What about certain Internet trading firms having a faster connection to their customers, allowing market trades to occur sooner?

Some feel that it should be classified as a common utility, like the phone service. This would mean that government would regulate aspects of the service like connection speeds, uptime and downtime, range of coverage and more.

It should be pretty clear that access to high speed Internet is almost a necessity in today’s economy. You might not think you need good broadband to build a house, run a garbage collection company or service vehicles, but you do need to coordinate buying supplies, pickups with a network of drivers and price shopping replacement parts.

What I mean is, whether we realize it or not, the Internet has become so intrinsic to our very existence that if we allowed the trends to continue, we could be setting ourselves up for failure as a whole.

The very notion of the information superhighway implies that people considered it essential. The major difference is, highways are publically funded and maintained. Ironic then that the so-called superhighway isn’t.

Now, obviously we’re not going to have nationalization of the country’s broadband Internet infrastructure, or at least I hope not, but as proposed to me by Clark Network Systems Manager Pat Taylor, perhaps some sort of high-speed Internet should be provided to most as a common utility, similarly to the phone service. Not everyone has access to landline phones and there are technical issues in some areas of the country, but the goal should be to provide everyone affordable high speed service, potentially DSL to everyone possible.

I like that idea personally. It should let users pay for faster speeds with services like cable or fiber if they want it and let private industries fight it out, but at least regulate and mandate a minimum speed and make sure as many people can access and afford it.

The BBC published an article in October 2013 that said “At high speeds, it costs nearly three times as much as in the UK and France, and more than five times as much as in South Korea.”

Many blame the lack of regulation on the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was supposed to foster competition in an open market for allowing large companies to merge and gain monopolies and duopolies in major markets around the United States. This is why regulated speed lanes is such a farce.

Deregulation leads to monopolization, then re-regulation enables it?

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler made a personal guarantee that the regulations wouldn’t be used to hurt consumers, but he can’t make that promise. And unless the former Internet and cable company lobbyist can also reveal that he’s found the fountain of youth and will live forever, we shouldn’t trust him. Even if he could be around forever, I’m not sure we should trust anyone with that level of power.

With recent NSA backlash, why hand over the potential for censorship to private companies and condone it with a federal entity like the FCC?

Industry experts are extremely skeptical as well. It even inspired a massive debate on the popular netcast “This Week in (Tech) Law,” which is part of a larger online netcasting network run by long time TechTV personality Leo Laporte.

Regardless where you fall on the issue of net neutrality, you should be writing your representatives. I realize we’re constantly told to voice our opinions, but if there was ever a time to do so, this is it.

Sure, there are downsides to forcing government regulation and backing to a now global network. There is bureaucracy, the ever-existing argument that congress has no clue what it’s dealing with in regards to technology and just general lack of trust for government oversight, but we have to consider the alternative.

We’re heading down a path that means that larger companies are growing more powerful, forcing customers to pay higher rates for less guarantee while the product becomes more necessary. If that doesn’t sound like a roadmap for a monopoly, I’m not sure what is.

When that major ISP tells you that if you want to access your Netflix subscription, which you might be using instead of paying for cable or satellite TV, you need to pay X amount of dollars more or risk having lower quality streaming and network slowdowns, all while you’re already paying for what you think is access to the Internet at an already vaguely advertised rate of up to 15 Mbps, what are you going to think?

And you can’t just go to a new ISP because far too often, there aren’t actual alternatives.

The companies have locked down the industry so it’s time we treat them like common utility providers. There’s nothing wrong with speed tiers, although I’d argue that unless we motivate them to increase the rollout of things like fiber we’re always going to lag behind tiny, obscure countries around the world in terms of Internet speed. But there’s a huge problem with holding some bytes ransom and prioritizing others.

That sounds like extortion to me.

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