[Yes, I did just poorly photoshop those logos onto a screenshot from Mike Tyson's Punch Out, and yes, for the record, if this were true to reality, the size of each of the fighters would actually be switched. But hey, I'm only human]
So not only are we digital nerds here at The Digital Breakfast, we’re also legal nerds. And yesterday’s ruling in the Comcast – FCC net neutrality fight couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, as our Copyright and Technology Conference, which will cover net neutrality as part of the broader discussion, is coming up on June 17.
Net neutrality is the idea that ISPs should not discriminate against their users based on the type of content streams those users consume on the web. In this case, a couple of years back, Comcast had been slowing the connection of users it believed to be downloading large (and more than likely copyright protected) files from BitTorrent sites. The FCC, which regulates some aspects of the internet, told Comcast to knock it off and issued a set of industry wide rules that discouraged this type of monkeying around. But since Comcast seems to be perpetually flush with cash (not to mention cajones), it chose to challenge the FCC’s rules in court instead of adhering to them.
Fast forward to April 6, 2010, and the DC Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Comcast, saying that the FCC indeed lacked the authority to force ISPs to remain content neutral in delivering broadband to their customers. The obvious implication is that now (at least unless the government petitions the Supreme Court to hear the case), ISPs are able to slow down, block or charge their customers more for web access based on the types of content those customers view/download on the web.
So essentially, now ISPs don’t just provide the means by which you can access content on the web, but they can essentially control what type of content you access while you’re connected. Not necessarily directly, of course. But say you watch a lot of episodes of Lost on Hulu. If Comcast (or any other ISP) wants to charge you more for that, at this point, there’s no one to stop them. And are you really going to pay an extra fee just to access content that would otherwise be free? By the same token, maybe you’re a BitTorrent user and you like to circumvent the system to get your fix of the latest edition of what artists like Lady GaGa and the music industry are calling music today. Your ISP can either slow down or potentially block your access to that content, which again, would otherwise be available to you from any other connection (that isn’t controlled by your ISP). At least that’s how it appears.
Of course, the FCC is now also concerned that if the court thinks it lacks the authority to issue net neutrality rules, it may think the same about the agency’s authority to oversee a national broadband plan (which it has proposed). And some worry that the decision will discourage would-be content providers from developing sites and platforms to deliver their would-be content (the anti-innovation argument, if you will). All well-founded concerns, as far as I can tell.
But there’s another concern I have about all this, and that’s that often times, broadband providers are your cable company. So you get your internet access from the same company from which, surprise surprise, you get your cable, as part of a bundle. And I know that in many areas of the country (I don’t want to say all since I don’t really know), cable companies have a monopoly. So, for instance, where my parents live, their only cable option is Comcast, and they get both broadband internet and cable delivered by Comcast. In some areas, Fios is an option, and pretty much everywhere satellite TV is an option, but for the most part, I assume this country gets its TV through cable. Now, those same guys that give you your cable can regulate what you access online, a good portion of which might be video content from TV. What they can do here is basically deter you from accessing video content online, steering you back to your TV, where networks make money from advertising, and more money for networks means a happy cable company.
Plus, how about this – So you get your broadband from your cable company, they’re now jerking your connection around and you’re tired of it. Are you going to cancel just the internet portion of your media package and keep the cable? Are you going to change ISPs AND switch to Fios (if it’s even available to you) or satellite? And who’s to say that any other ISP you switch to isn’t going to treat your connection the same way – charging you more for access to certain types of content, slowing your connection or blocking your access altogether?
I guess the point is – if this ruling stands and Congress or the President don’t do anything to effectively overrule it, cable companies in particular are going to have a hell of a lot more control than before. And since they already have a pretty good deal of it anyhow, I’m slightly worried for what this means to us consumers.
Then again, what do I know?
I just use these dang internets.