The internet as we know it is in peril. Verizon's victory in the court of appeal this week, seeing the FCC's attempts to regulate broadband providers in the name of Net Neutrality defeated, has the potential to change how we access the internet and web services like Netflix, Hulu, and others more fundamentally than 2013's SOPA threatened to. In question isn't whether internet access should be a free-for-all, but what it is fundamentally, legally classified as, and who therefore has control over what gets shuttled through: Verizon and the broadband providers, in control of the "pipes", or the FCC as protector of infrastructure that uses public rights of way. For all both sides are claiming some degree of victory this week, we're still no closer to settling that fundamental question.
The position that leaves us in is confusing. The appeals court hasn't said that the FCC has no place in deciding broadband policy, and in fact recognizes the Commission's fears that "broadband providers may be motivated to discriminate against and among edge providers." What it has said is that the way the FCC was trying to go about doing that was overstepping the mark in terms of federal law.
Is there a problem if Net Neutrality fails? Verizon, Comcast, and other broadband providers all insist that, if anything, the online experience for consumers could be better: not to mention fairer for all involved, no matter which side of the pipe they sit on.
There's an argument to be made there, perhaps: anyone who has cursed YouTube for buffering spoiling their video watching, or found Spotify streaming to be glitchy and error-prone might welcome a more stable, predictable service.
I'm not sure that's sufficient reason to make me stomach the passing of Net Neutrality as a concept, however. As someone who writes about cutting-edge technology for a living, I've seen plenty of startups come and go with ambitious ideas that butt heads with the realities of how tough it can be to establish a business. The idea that the existing incumbents might be able to defend their position not with innovation but simply by paying for better delivery is a concerning one.
That's before you consider the fact that I'm a content producer myself. Could there come a day where SlashGear would have to stump up a fee if it wanted to compete on delivery speed to readers with, say, AOL or SB Nation owned properties?
As an internet user, meanwhile, the dearth of alternative options for getting online means that the opportunities to actually jump ship between providers - voting with my dollars, just as the broadband companies say should be the case - are rare or even non-existent. The cost of building out infrastructure, among other things, means that many areas have just one fixed broadband provider to "choose" from. In short, if you want to get online, there's only really one place you can go to do that.
That promised choice, therefore, doesn't really reflect the actual situation out in American towns and cities. The FCC has to share some blame in the whole situation itself, too; it pushed to exempt Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable from the "common carriage" obligations that would have continued to define broadband infrastructure as something to which the public had a fundamental right of access.
In short, the appeals court this week said that the FCC can't try to apply "common carrier" limits on something already deemed to be outside of that classification. The ball is back in the FCC's hands as to whether it mounts another challenge; while a decision either way hasn't been announced, Commission chairman Tom Wheeler did say the agency "is not going to abandon its responsibility to oversee that broadband networks operate in the public interest."
President Obama too has waded in, reconfirming his own commitment to Net Neutrality. What's yet to be demonstrated is how any of them will actually go about doing that defending, or enacting those responsibilities.
I want more stable broadband, and more reliable service. Yet I also want the freedom to use the services I choose without - at some point along the line - a surcharge being levied, one which either has to come out of my pocket or that of the company behind the service I'm using. The broadband providers arguments against Net Neutrality provisions sound a lot like they're welcoming competition but only in terms of them themselves making more money; not keeping the internet a place of openness where bright new startups can flourish.