I don’t like to get political online; it’s not really something that I’m comfortable with. But I saw what happened on the FCC website today, and I had to say something. After a comment period that had to be extended because of the sheer volume of public outcry against the proposed plan, the FCC enacted their plan as-written.
For the record, that plan creates four essential conditions for ISPs:
- Internet service providers may offer two tiers of Internet service: the normal speed and the “pay for play” speed, essentially forcing other big companies to hand over arbitrary chunks of money in order to allow customers access to their data. This severely hurts companies like Netflix whose products work noticeably better at higher speeds, forcing them to either cut back profits or pass the costs on to their customers.
- It creates a ‘no blocking rule’ that explicitly prevents ISPs from blocking content unless that content is definitively illegal.
- It bans an ambiguous spread of activity, making “commercially unreasonable practices” illegal. This is not terribly well defined, though one clear example was given: if an ISP tried to feed you a slower speed on a website simply because the company didn’t approve of the website’s politics, that would very much be “commercially unreasonable.” This also explicitly includes creating conditions that favor an affiliate entity — for example, Verizon cannot offer a better speed to its streaming service, Redbox, than it offers to Netflix or Hulu.
- Finally, it creates a rule insisting that all ISPs create a publically-available report every so often that tells all of their consumers exactly how and what they are doing in relationship to the above new rules (i.e. how much they’re charging for their ‘fast lane’, what if any websites they’ve blocked access to for illegal content) as well as basic stats about the amount of traffic they serve, average speeds for normal and fast lanes, and so on.
Now, on its surface, this doesn’t seem like it should be a huge deal. And to be perfectly honest, in the immediate sense, it’s not a huge deal. Essentially, you get the privilege of paying more for your streaming and other data-intensive services, and that money goes to line the pockets of Comcast or whatever other ISP is throttling those services for you. Kind of weak sauce, but nothing painful.
Why Be Upset, Then?
The first real problem here is that this law stifles competition. Now, I’m not a free-market extremist, but I do definitely believe that competition is what fosters innovation — and giving the ISPs the ability to charge startups for the ‘fast lane’ is very likely to keep some startups from succeeding. It is, after all, the cutting-edge products that are the most likely to need ‘fast lane’ speeds in order to be viable. So right off the bat, you have one of the worst parts of a free market: already-successful companies (ab)using the rules to keep newer, more innovative companies out of the marketplace.
The second major argument here is the classic slippery slope: “This plan doesn’t bode well for consumers,” said the counsel for Consumer Reports in response to the plan. “The FCC appears to have abandoned the principle that all Web sites and services should be treated equally on the Internet.”