The End Of Net Neutrality?
Local Legislators, Providers Discuss Proposed FCC Rules
HARRISONBURG — The Internet as you know it may soon be changing.
This spring, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed new rules that would radically alter the relationship between Internet service providers, or ISPs, and online content generators.
“Under the new rules proposed, ISPs would be able to charge content providers to deliver services at faster speeds,” Christopher Ali, media studies professor at the University of Virginia, said in a telephone interview.
For example, streaming video provider Netflix could pay ISPs to ensure that its movies and television programming stream faster than their competitors, such as Hulu and Amazon Prime.
Supporters of net neutrality — the doctrine that all data online should be treated equally — fear that the proposals would create a “two-tiered” system, limiting the ability of those companies with smaller budgets to reach users.
The concern, Ali said, is that “startup companies will be grouped into the slow lane,” while well-funded corporations would be able to ensure that their information would be more readily accessible.
Higher costs for faster service would then likely be passed along to the consumer.
However, net neutrality advocates may have found an unexpected ally on Capitol Hill.
On June 20, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, held a hearing on the proposed changes. Goodlatte argued that, rather than new regulations, “vigorous application of the antitrust laws can prevent dominant Internet service providers from discriminating against competitors’ content.”
Many Internet activists remember Goodlatte as one of the co-sponsors of the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA.
That bill, aimed at combating online copyright infringement, raised the ire of free speech proponents. SOPA failed, in part, after Google, Wikipedia, Twitter and other websites participated in widespread “blackout” protests on Jan. 18, 2012.
While Goodlatte still calls for greater protection for intellectual property, he expressed concern that this move by the FCC “stifles rather than facilitates competition and innovation.”
Later, in an emailed statement, Goodlatte said, “The way to encourage growth in the Internet economy as a whole is to maintain the largely free-market environment in which the Internet was conceived.”
Ali sees a greater threat than just higher prices for the average Internet user. If smaller or new websites are unable to reach a greater audience, the public’s ability to access a variety of information will be reduced.
Net neutrality activists fear that, if the proposed rules are passed, then the door may be opened for a fully tiered system where ISPs will limit or even block access to certain websites, similar to cable or satellite television programming.
“If I want to watch ESPN, I have to purchase” a certain package with a cable or satellite company, Ali said. Under the proposed rules, ISPs could eventually set up a similar system for the Internet, he said.
“[We would] see a much different Internet than we have seen in the past 15 years,” he said.
Because many ISPs also have their own content generators, there is the potential for abuse.
Ali cites service provider Comcast, which also owns the NBCUniversal media company. Under the new rules, Ali believes that in the future there would be nothing to keep Comcast from limiting its users to websites owned by NBCUniversal, such as the video site Hulu or news source MSNBC.
“What does this do to us as citizens” if people are limited to only certain news sources, Ali asks.
Many net neutrality activists are calling for the FCC to declare ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. The belief is that this would prevent ISPs from charging content providers for preferential treatment.
Alex Phillips, chief executive officer and general manager of High Speed Link, a local ISP that serves the central Shenandoah Valley — including parts of Rockingham, Shenandoah, Page and Augusta counties — says this belief is misguided. “Regulation tends to naturally benefit larger companies,” he said.
Phillips, who also is a member of the board of directors for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, says that the debate over net neutrality has been too simplified.
“Video transformed the Internet,” he said. As consumers stream more movies and television shows, “the train is getting more full than it used to be.”
Phillips says that if everyone stopped watching TV and instead chose to stream television shows online, “the Internet would die.”
For Phillips, the most important issue is enforcement of truth-in-advertising laws on ISPs.
“I tell my customers up front that they can only stream in standard definition,” he said, while accusing larger ISPs of not fully informing their customers that they may not be able to access high-definition streaming when there is a heavy demand on the system.
While he is not in favor of placing ISPs under Title II regulation, Phillips is not necessarily supportive of the proposed FCC rules, either.
“The Internet was always a level playing field. … If the FCC starts regulating it, it would stifle innovation — innovation that is vital to my business,” he said.
If the FCC rules do go into force, Phillips believes there should be an exemption for small businesses.
Even though the proposed rules were announced on May 15, only recently have they attracted attention from the public.
This may largely be due to comedian John Oliver, who, on the June 1 episode of his television show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” spoke at length on the topic.
During the 13-minute segment, which was later posted online, he likened the proposed rules to a “mob shakedown,” and the appointment of FCC chairman Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cable industry, to “needing a baby sitter and hiring a dingo.”
The video has since been viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube.
“It’s fantastic,” laughed Ali, when asked if he had seen the video.
Phillips, however, felt Oliver wasn’t necessarily fair to Wheeler.
“I’ve met with [Wheeler], I’ve dealt with him. … I just don’t feel that he’s in the back pocket of the cable companies,” he said.
The FCC is allowing public comment on the proposed rules for 120 days at www.fcc.gov/comments .
Contact Bryan Gilkerson at 574-6267 or firstname.lastname@example.org