This week, the column I write for the leading Spanish financial daily Expansión is titled “Back to the neutrality of the web” (pdf in Spanish), and discusses the possible consequences of the US Appeal Court’s ruling that the Federal Communications Commission does not have the authority to bar Internet service providers from favoring one type of traffic over another.
No, the sentence does not spell the death of neutrality on the web. It’s not net neutrality that is the loser here, but the FCC. What the sentence means is that if the FCC decides not to classify broadband suppliers as common carriers, it cannot apply the corresponding legislation to them, and therefore cannot do the same to Verizon. The sentence doesn’t mean that the FCC cannot force neutrality on the web, but that if it wants to do so, it apply the law appropriately, perhaps by reclassifying broadband suppliers. In reality, the fact that the courts are requiring the FCC to explain and back up its decisions is good news: the last thing anybody wants is omnipotent regulating bodies that the courts cannot argue with.
Now it’s the FCC’s turn to make a move. It can appeal to the Supreme Court, although in principle it is unlikely the body would rule differently. It could also try to impose neutrality on the internet by coming up with some different rules. The third option, that the FCC drop the idea of imposing neutrality on the web, which some commentators have said might happen now that its senior management has been replaced, seems the least likely. Julius Genachowski was clearly more sensitive to this issue than Tom Wheeler (who in a “previous life” was part of the cable and telecommunications lobby), but aside from showing his interest in keeping the net open, albeit by other means, has the support of Barack Obama, who still seems fully committed to net neutrality.
The decision will certainly have given Netflix a fright: the company’s use of broadband to transmit its programming would see telecoms providers charge the company extra if the neutrality of the internet is not guaranteed. But beyond the possible impact on Netflix, what about the rest of us?
What would happen if the traffic that comes from normal pages, such as the one you are currently reading—which are managed by individuals or small companies unable to pay the supplements that telecoms players would demand for the use of their privileged networks—were restricted to a second-class internet, while the big companies able to meet such costs were to be given priority? What is going to happen to innovation if anybody coming up with an idea that competes with an established provider or service discovers that nobody wants to invest in it because the playing field is not level and it’s not possible to compete with companies able to pay for the prices demanded by the operators? And what will happen to anybody who tries to compete with the services offered by an operator, or by any operator-affiliated company?
The network neutrality is not yet a thing of the past. But today’s internet is not fully neutral either: AT&T is already offering sponsored data plans for providers that want you to access their data from your cellphone can now offer you this without using up all your download limit, which in effect is already a form of discrimination along the lines of “if you pay, you get better conditions than those who don’t.” Verizon is working on a plan to be able to offer applications that use broadband intensively, a safeguard that their functioning would not be interrupted, something which, in a negative sense, we experience often when trying to watch a video on YouTube. Akamai and Ericsson are currently developing mobile preferential transmission modes for companies prepared to pay for it. All these technologies, which some people like to describe as innovation, are in reality negative innovation. They are ways of destroying the most important characteristic of the web, which is what has brought us this far: the principle of neutrality.
What the US Court of Appeal’s ruling tells us is that it we need to be fully aware of the importance of internet neutrality. Defending the web from the greed of the operators is one of the biggest tasks we face. An internet where operators can arbitrarily degrade or prioritize the transmission of certain data will turn into television, where only those who can afford a license can broadcast. This is an extremely important issue. Preserving the neutrality of the internet means preserving the internet’s future.
Below, the column in full:
Back to the neutrality of the net
Last week, the US Court of Appeal backed Verizon’s complaint against the Federal Communications Commission, accusing it of overstepping its authority by trying to keep the internet neutral by barring internet providers from favoring one type of traffic over another.
The neutrality of the internet is essential: it defines what the internet is. The internet is, by definition, neutral: all the bits circulating on it, whether they come from my personal page or that of a large corporation, circulate at the same speed. If the connection is poor, the bits will arrive very slowly, but everybody’s will arrive slowly. This principle, that all data packages should be treated the same, has generate a level playing field, making the internet what it is today.
But the telecommunications providers would like it otherwise. They want the right to be able to charge companies more to send their data more quickly. This would change the nature of the internet, with toll roads for those who can afford them, and dirt tracks for the rest of us. Goodbye to the democratizing potential of the internet.
Is the end of the internet as we know it? No, because there is still the Supreme Court to fall back on, and because, basically, the ruling does not say that the FCC has no say in this matter, simply that it has to regulate the internet using the right means. Obama has said that he is prepared to establish the internet’s neutrality, and to protect it from the telecoms companies greed. That’s a good sign. This is a matter that really does affect us all.
(En español, aquí)