Or in the slow lane if someone chooses not to pay the toll. Last Thursday, the U.S. telecommunications regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), voted through a proposal for new net neutrality rules that could allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to implement a two-tier Internet. Content companies could pay for higher priority Internet, meaning their content would be delivered faster and more consistently than companies that do not pay the premium.
Why should we, the consumers, care? First, let’s look at the concept of net neutrality to better understand the implications of this. The principle of net neutrality states that all Internet traffic should be treated the same way at each stage of the process. That means that whether you are viewing content from Facebook or a friend’s latest blog post, the data involved should be given the same priority along the same routes.
ISPs like Rogers and Bell in Canada, or Verizon and Comcast in the U.S. control how websites and other Internet-based content are accessed. If you are pulling any information from the Internet, that content runs through an ISP. Until recently, there were rules in place to protect the net neutrality concept in the U.S. Called the Open Internet Order, the regulations basically stated that ISPs were not allowed to favour any traffic, not allowed to block any legal site, service or device and must be open about how traffic is handled.
As of January 2014, a U.S. court overruled these regulations stating the FCC did not have the authority to enforce traffic equality. Essentially, there have been no rules in place at all since then. Under the new regulations some of the concepts will be upheld such as no content being blocked as long as the content itself is legal. The big change is in potential preferential treatment of some traffic over others.
Some proponents of net neutrality point to a very grim future without it. A few apocalyptic images and videos are showing a future where we pay for Internet similarly to how we pay for cable services. Extra fees for access to online gaming, video services, international content, and news. These are extra fees beyond the money we shell out to the companies that provide the content, like Blizzard or Netflix. In truth, this is fairly unlikely in the immediate future. However, you are very likely to see extra costs coming from the companies that serve content themselves. If they want to stay competitive they will have to pay for access to premium bandwidth. That cost is bound to trickle down to the consumer.
Then think about new services coming online, the innovators and startups. Think of how many popular services were virtually unknown a decade ago. For a point of reference, Facebook turned 10 this year. How many paid services started out as free until they built a following of loyal users? How will new services fair in the future when, by default, they are slower than existing competitors that have the cash flow to pay for priority bandwidth?
On the other side of the coin, maybe it’s not such a great idea to put more power over the Internet into the hands of any government. Governments don’t have a great track record with issues like privacy and efficiency. And competition is good right? With the new wording of net neutrality regulation, new ISP providers will be in an even tougher position in trying to break into a market dominated by existing giant telecoms.
By now you may be asking why this matters to you. We live in Canada where the regulations are structured much more in favour of net neutrality. Why should we care what happens in the U.S.? If for no other reason, think of where your content comes from. How many of the shows that you watch online come from U.S.-based services? What about websites that you visit?
To be fair, many media companies maintain servers in Canada. But don’t think for a second that the effects of changes in net neutrality won’t leak across the border. After all, who owns the content on those servers? I’m sure many of us have run across the different content available on Netflix here versus in the U.S. or U.K. Plus, reported cases of net neutrality infringements have been growing rapidly for years, even in Canada. Most major ISPs have a list of complainants saying that they are throttling, or purposely slowing down, certain services, usually video streaming or online gaming, that take up a large share of bandwidth. Do we have any reason to expect this to improve if major regulations change south of the border?
Jon Reid is an IT professional working in Corner Brook. His column appears every other Tuesday in The Western Star.