This post also appeared in The Tennessean, where Concept Technology has a bi-weekly feature in the Business section.
On Jan. 14, a federal appeals court ruled against the Federal Communications Commission, putting in jeopardy the future of net neutrality and effectively placing the interests of millions of consumers and thousands of companies behind the interests of a few internet service providers.
As defined by the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order, net neutrality ensures that ISPs enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.
The Web technology blog ReadWrite does a good job explaining net neutrality as prohibiting “internet providers like the cable or cellular companies from filtering, slowing or otherwise limiting the data traffic that flows over their network — for instance, by blocking services they don’t like, or by charging exorbitant traffic fees to rival services. Such fees, of course, would be in addition to the payments ISPs already receive from end users via, say, your cable or DSL bill.”
With the recent ruling, big broadband providers such as Verizon — which brought the suit — AT&T and Comcast won the right to prevent or slow down access to competitors or certain websites. For consumers, this means that file-sharing services like BitTorrent may be unavailable during prime time for streaming “Mad Men,” or you will have to pay more for services like Netflix, Hulu or YouTube just to maintain the same level of streaming quality to which you are accustomed.
This is terrible for consumers and will stunt business growth, competition and innovation by placing unnecessary barriers to entry on legitimate online startups. Imagine if Netflix had to pay more for equal access to homes during its fledgling startup days — we’d still be driving to Blockbuster on Friday nights.
Brilliant computer scientists and engineers created the internet, and the protocols and policies they established — including the founding principle that all data should be treated equal — keep the system working decades later. It’s frightening to think that the future of the internet lies not with individuals, but with members of the judicial and legislative branches, some of whom don’t really understand what the internet is and how it works.
Let us not forget Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens’ 2006 speech during which he described the internet as a “series of tubes” when explaining his opposition to net neutrality. Stevens, who died in 2010, said, “Those tubes can be filled, and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material.”
If we’re going to change the fundamental principles of the internet, those who don’t fully understand the process and ramifications shouldn’t lead the charge.
America already falls behind much of the world in terms of internet access. According to network diagnostics company Ookla, the United States currently ranks 31st in the world in internet download speeds — right behind Russia and the Czech Republic. So while consumers and businesses bear a comparably slow internet, ISPs enjoy 97 percent profit margins on internet services, according to Bernstein Research.
With the appeals court recently ruling, American consumers and businesses only fall further behind.
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