Neutral to a Biased Net

IT Leaders I saw this image posted by someone I follow on Google Plus and I love it. It captures the perception of various people on what you do and in reality what you actually do! I saw something similar posted to our LTS discussion group about Librarians, which was very funny too.

OK, let us get down to the topic at hand. What is net neutrality? This definition by Wikipedia captures it well “Net neutrality (also network neutrality or Internet neutrality) is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.” Makes sense, right? It turns out to be not so and the Internet Service Providers such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have been fighting this in the courts. Net neutrality suffered a big blow recently when a court struck down this on technicality.

I am not a lawyer, so I don’t necessarily understand the intricacies of the difference, but as you see in this Time magazine article, “The groundwork for Tuesday’s defeat was established in 2002, when the FCC made the fateful decision to classify broadband as an “information service” not a “telecommunications service,” which would have allowed the agency to impose “common carrier” regulations prohibiting discrimination by the broadband companies.”

Bottom line – your ISPs will soon have a lot of control over what content and how it is delivered to you and you won’t have a say on it except to choose the best available option, which may not be necessarily the one you are so used to. You can read this article for “What the Internet could Look Like without Net Neutrality”

Let us compare the two scenarios. Today, we pay a monthly fee to the ISP and we are pretty much free to do what we want – choose the websites that we like the most, and stream from providers such as Netflix or Hulu that we have subscribed to, and pay a fee in some cases. Think of a situation, where ISP decides to either block or slow down the connection speeds to certain content providers because the content provider and the ISP cannot reach a financial deal. It is suspected that the ISPs will favor those content providers who are willing to pay them for favorable treatment. Imagine a world without Google search, but Bing or that Comcast wants to force you to purchase Xfinity Cable service and its on-demand and block or slow down Netflix. These are extreme examples, but all within the realm of possibilities.

Cable TV operates slightly differently today in that it is the content providers such as CBS who charge a fee for the Cable providers to carry their programming. The Cable operator then turns that around as a fee to the user along with an additional fee. Look at the mess this has resulted in. The monthly fee for Cable TV is ridiculously high and the Cable TV providers find ways to package multiple channels to give you a feeling that you are getting a lot of value, whereas in reality, you may not want all those additional channels!

When the information service option comes into picture, the ISPs are likely to take us more towards the Cable TV land. Someone will have to fatten the pockets of the ISPs, either the content providers or the customers. They may tell me to pay more if I want preferential access to Google, NetFlix, Facebook, Twitter etc. And who are they to decide what I want? I am willing to pay to be connected through them to the internet, which by all counts is pathetic compared to many other countries, but I have no choice but to pay up! In a recent survey, we are placed 11th in terms of speed. And in terms of cost of connectivity, unless you are in some big cities, you pay a lot more in the US.

This is a terrible idea on every ground. Given that everything happens on the internet now, unless those dreaming up creative ideas can pony up a lot of money to get the attention of the ISP, they are dead in the water. ISPs are a monopoly regardless of what they say. Yes, there are choices that one can make in big cities, but in vast majority of the country, you have access to just one ISP. Even where you have a choice, they hook you with a 1 or 2 year commitment to get preferential rates and this essentially results in inertia to change providers.

How does this affect the emerging area of cloud and the costs associated with it? If Amazon doesn’t pay extra to Verizon, will they slow down the connection? What does that mean to our plans to move some of our operations to the cloud? Obviously, Amazon will pass the cost on to the customers, thereby increasing the cost of cloud computing. Will Wellesley be asked to pay a fee to make our websites load faster or even accessible (I sure hope I am not giving ideas to the evil empire)? Will this result in a bidding war between small liberal arts colleges? Is this going to result in a reputational risk for organizations like us?

It is indeed monday morning quarterbacking by many who blame the FCC for arguing back in 2010 that the ISPs should not be considered Common Carrier providers, instead, they should be Information Service Providers. I sure hope that there is an opportunity for all of us to express our concerns about this and get this ruling turned back for an open internet.

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