As the world becomes more connected to the web, and services we rely on everyday increasingly depend on the internet as a backbone (shopping, reading, communicating, sharing, entertaining, etc.), the policies that the government adopts – at all levels – related to the web become increasingly important. Unfortunately, public policy is a slowly moving ship. Laws and regulations rarely keep pace with technology.
One area of policy is commonly called "net neutrality," the argument that access to the internet should be as close to equal as possible for everyone. I agree with this policy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the internet is a place where a vast number of Americans exercise their First Amendment rights. And I'm not just talking about freedom of speech, several of these rights are exercised on the internet today:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
I don't like or agree with a lot of what I see on the internet, but I'm just as free to share there (here, actually) as they are. Just as free.
Unfortunately, there are some who wish to change that, by intentionally un-leveling the playing field. Interest Service Providers (ISP's) like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Insight, Dish Network and DirecTV are clamoring to approve authority from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to create "fast lanes," where internet speeds are faster, and charge customers more to get access to it. Netflix, the nation's largest recorded video streaming service, and Major League Baseball, the nation's largest live video streaming service, are both in favor of net neutrality and are publicly opposing the ISP's lobbying efforts.
ISP's claim they need the extra cash to build infrastructure despite the enormous profits and margins they already enjoy. In a recent letter to the FCC, Major League Baseball's Advanced Media group (they run mlb.tv and all of the team franchises' digital media) explained the problems succinctly:
You can view the full text of MLB's letter here. I don't have a problem with ISP's that have competed to win a majority market share, that's what free markets can do. But giving ISP's freedom to charge for faster, better access, in an age where people's access to broadband is approaching a necessity, unfairly hinders us.
New businesses will struggle before they open their online doors. MLB described the fast lanes perfectly as "economic barriers for start-up entrepreneurs and innovators." If you wanted to start a new business that relied on the web for survival, how can you compete with Netflix or YouTube or ESPN when you don't have the resources to pay for faster access? You get burned by the customer from the first day because you can't deliver content/merchandise/etc. as fast as so-and-so can. Your new venture – an attempt to live your dream, contribute to the economy, create jobs – is DOA.
The costs will undoubtedly be passed to us consumers. Netflix (Amazon, Apple or MLB) wants to deliver smooth streaming (because we as customers want it) and they may well need to charge us more to pay for the fast lane. If you use Comcast or Time Warner Cable (who are asking for approval to merge) but aren't a big time corporate customer does that mean you're stuck with megabit bandwidth in the no-longer-high-speed single digits unless you can hand over a truckload of cash?
We're picking winners and losers ahead of time, but free market fans know that's not the way it should work. And once we start helping an industry, it makes it incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to ever fully stop helping that industry, because their business model quickly conforms to rely on that help. We should allow the internet pipes to be open and equally speedy. If an ISP needs to invest in infrastructure to survive, then it should probably start investing in infrastructure to survive. A little investment in customer service wouldn't kill them either. If the ISP fails because of market conditions and business model failure, then it should fail on its own. Let this struggle to build out sufficient infrastructure encourage innovation and market disruption. There may be a tinkerer somewhere thinking of a new way to broadcast data that blows the old guard ISP's out of the water. I hope there is. That's the way it is supposed to work.