Occasionally, I read something that impresses me with its Orwellian coupling of focus group-tested clichés and misleading claims. This happened recently when Ajit Pai, former Verizon lawyer and current chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, announced the proposed death of net neutrality saying, “Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet.”
When I first read this, I was befuddled. I don’t know about you, but I always thought getting on the internet and doing basically whatever I want without precondition was the opposite of micromanagement. So, what was Pai referring to?
There is one main rule under contention here and it boils down to this: Internet Service Providers can’t discriminate on how their customers access the internet through ISP networks. Just like electricity and water flow equally to all people who pay their bills, so does the internet.
Pai considers this government micromanagement, and he wants to put an end to it. He seems to envision a future that empowers ISPs like Spectrum or Verizon to use their gatekeeper status to choose market winners and losers on a pay-to-play basis and promotes the ability of ISPs to micromanage our experience by directing customers to websites and services that ISPs have agreements with. As an analogy, imagine La Plata Electric Association making a deal with Sony so that their electricity is cheaper if you use it with Sony products. It’s an absurd notion, but is similar to what will be possible with the internet if net neutrality dies.
To get a better idea of how ISPs could use the power of the pipes to enhance profits and restrict new competition let’s look at Netflix. Under the new rules, consumers could pay twice for one service. Once to the folks at Netflix, whose innovations have revolutionized content creation and distribution, and again to ISPs, which create artificial bandwidth scarcity and then demand customers pay up to get their preferred services. Alternatively, Netflix could pay the ISP for preferential treatment and pass the cost onto consumers through higher monthly fees. The result? ISPs get a new profit center, Netflix comes out financially even but with a more secure market position and the consumer pays higher prices for the same service level.
Now, I must admit that just because a company can do something doesn’t mean that it will. Comcast recently assured us that they will not, “block, throttle or discriminate against lawful content.”
So far so good, but what does the past say about the future? It’s not promising. In 2007, AT&T blocked access to Skype, and in 2012, it blocked access to FaceTime because they competed with AT&T services. In 2012, Verizon tried to dictate to Google what consumers can access in Google’s app store. Comcast even changed its open internet pledge on the same day that Pai announced he was relitigating the rules governing net neutrality. ISPs have a history of trying to shut out new competing technologies, and yet, with a wink and a nudge, they proclaim something akin to, “trust us, we won’t use our new powers, but we must have them.” This coming from an industry that consistently ranks last in customer satisfaction.
ISPs also insist that they need to test new business models to increase profits and invest in new infrastructure. Pai and his industry allies claim that between 2014 and 2016, investment in infrastructure is down by 5.6 percent, and they attribute this to net neutrality rules. However, according to a report by the organization Free Press investment was up 5.3 percent after net neutrality was put into effect. And the Free Press analysis didn’t depend on arbitrary assumptions developed by nefarious math geniuses, it was derived from Security and Exchange Commission filings that publicly-traded ISP companies filed themselves.
Admittedly, infrastructure improvements in rural areas like Southwest Colorado would be welcome, but are we slow to bridge the digital divide because of net neutrality? As a recent article (Herald, Nov. 21) brought to light, Century Link received $159 million of taxpayer dollars in 2015 to expand broadband access to rural areas in Colorado. As of now, many stakeholders don’t know what Century Link has done. Some areas that were slated for improvement have slower internet now than before Century Link made changes, and various requests for information by the grass-roots organization Southwest Colorado Council of Governments have been met with silence, prompting Sen. Michael Bennet to make an official request to the FCC for information, only to be met with more silence.
These aren’t the only problems. Many rural areas only have one choice for their ISP. Where are they supposed to go if the local monopoly starts restricting services to preferred partners?
What’s good about net neutrality is that everything is open to disruption all the time. You don’t have these contracts where large incumbent companies lock in guaranteed bonus exposure with pay-to-play subscription packages decided by your phone or cable companies.
In the absence of net neutrality, I don’t believe the internet will magically become a digital city devoid of choice. The effects will likely play out over years or decades, driven by incremental changes that subtly corral people into accepting less choice through “deals” that prioritize web services that have relationships with ISPs. It will feel like a consistent series of small compromises presented as discounts and combined with targeted service inconsistencies that slowly degrade the openness that has defined the internet as we know it. I can’t say for sure when this will happen, and I hope it never does, but I imagine it will be accompanied by a remake of Bruce Springsteen’s ’90s hit “57 channels and nothing on.”
Nathan Beck is the owner of Early Motion, a web services and business process automation company in Durango. Reach him via earlymotion.com.