The battle for the future of the Internet heated up Monday as tech giants including Google, Facebook, and Amazon joined forces to issue a full-throated defense of net neutrality, the long-standing principle by which Internet data is treated equally.
The Internet Association, which represents more than 35 major high-tech Internet firms, submitted a 23-page argument Monday for the robust reinstatement of the principle, weighing in once again as the Federal Communications Commission begins to rewrite the rules governing the Internet’s hardwire pipelines after a federal court this year threw out the agency’s Open Internet Order, which required companies to adhere to net neutrality.
“Preserving the Internet’s neutrality ensures that it remains an engine for economic growth, innovation, and democratic values,” said the trade group, who also represents “new economy” pioneers Yahoo!, Twitter, and Netflix.
The nation’s tech goliaths are aligning themselves against the telecom and cable behemoths who provide Internet service, including Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T, who have been lobbying and waging a legal war to dismantle the Internet’s original principle of internetwork neutrality, which has long required them to deliver all data flowing through the Internet’s pipes without favoring one type of content over another.
This clash of economic titans, now locked in a regulatory struggle that may be finally approaching its endgame, will determine whether high-traffic Internet companies will be forced to pay an extra toll to access top-speed Internet “fast lanes” on top of the fees they pay already.
The nation’s telecom and cable companies – those that build and maintain the nation’s essential communications network – have been clamoring for years to put into place an Internet “fast lane,” charging content companies like Netflix an extra toll to deliver their pipeline-hogging videos.
But smaller players, unable to pay these additional tolls, could be left languishing behind buffering beach balls or spinning hourglass icons for years to come, experts say. As a result, the high-tech coalition argues, the Internet of the future could turn into just another version of cable TV, effectively controlled by access gatekeepers like Verizon and Comcast, in which websites that pay the higher toll will be more appealing to consumers.
“And yes, the Internet is threatened by broadband Internet access providers who would turn the open, best-efforts Internet into a pay-for-priority platform more closely resembling cable television than today’s Internet,” the companies said in their open comments to the FCC.
For the past few months, the FCC has been seeking public comments as officials begin to rewrite its previous net neutrality regulations, which a federal court threw out in January after Verizon successfully challenged the legal basis for its neutrality rules. The federal agency has received more than 650,000 comments over the past 30 days. The deadline for these comments are July 15.
For Verizon and Comcast, it only makes sense that those who use up the most bandwidth should help pay for the upgrades needed to accommodate the burgeoning market for online videos. They also insist it should be their prerogative to manage the data flowing on their privately-owned pipes, collecting reasonable, market-based fees from those who want to connect and keep pumping in ever expanding terabytes of data.
During peak hours, Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon alone can take up more than half the Internet’s pipelines, experts say.
But in citing “democratic values” as one of the purposes for net neutrality, the tech companies injected themselves into the broader debate about the control of information, and whether freedom of speech will essentially go to those able to pay for it.
“So it all comes down to a principle of being able to speak, or being able to innovate, without centralized permission,” Tim Wu, the professor at Columbia Law School in Manhattan who developed the concept of net neutrality and coined the term, said in a panel discussion at Fordham University in early July.
In any other capitalist enterprise, Wu suggested, such high demand for a company’s services would spark reinvestment and a drive to meet this demand. But since telecoms and cable companies operate essentially as monopolies, or duopolies, they are in a position to squeeze more out their customers without the threat of competition.
Indeed, broadband providers such as Verizon and Comcast possess both the incentive and the ability to discriminate among content providers. Comcast, for example, not only controls much of the Internet’s points of access, it also competes as a content provider since it owns NBC Universal. The company is also seeking to acquire Time Warner, another access gatekeeper and content provider.
The high-tech coalition says the FCC should adopt “simple, light touch rules” to regulate these powerful gatekeepers. It should prohibit the fast lanes and extra tolls the telecoms are seeking, they say, and create “robust disclosure requirements,” since network congestion can be easily manipulated.
"Segregation of the Internet into fast lanes and slow lanes will distort the market, discourage innovation and harm Internet users," said Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, in a statement. "The FCC must act to create strong, enforceable net neutrality rules and apply them equally to both wireless and wireline providers."