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Net Neutrality and a Closed Internet


Jack Gardner

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I wanted to talk about something else today, I really did, but like a wise philosopher once said, "you can't always get what you want." So, here we are. We're going to talk about net neutrality.

 

To begin with, net neutrality is basically the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast or Century-Link can't slow or block access to content on the internet. It just means that everyone online has equal access to everything. Sounds like a great thing, right?

 

That's because it is.

 

Up until January of this year the FCC had policies in place that shakily upheld net neutrality, then everything went kablooey. You see, when broadband internet was in the process of becoming a thing back in 2002, the then FCC chairman decided to classify it as an "information service," which is distinct from a "telecommunication service" in that information services have little to no regulation. Telecommunication services include things like phones and phone carriers are required to provide service equally to customers. AT&T can't block your call to a T-Mobile or Sprint customer or charge you more for speaking critically of their service. Cable is classified by the FCC as an information service, which is why cable providers can charge for different packages and networks. In 2010, the next chairman of the FCC attempted to fix this problem. Unfortunately, in an effort to avoid a massive lawsuit from ISPs, the FCC didn't reclassify internet as a telecommunication service. Instead, the chairman opted to protect the internet by writing up a lot of convoluted and nearly incomprehensible regulations.

 

It turns out that the ISPs weren't too happy with this and sued the FCC anyway. Predictably, the awkward, half-measure of just being confusing didn't stand up too well in court. It was ruled in January that the FCC was violating its own bylaws by trying to regulate the internet, which it had classified as an information service and therefore put outside of its own jurisdiction. Since then, current FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has repeatedly said that net neutrality isn't threatened at all and that new policies will be coming to make sure the internet stays open and free.

 

So, that means everything will be fine, right? Nope! This week both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported from sources within the FCC that the new policies being drawn up would provide broadband internet providers with "fast lanes" for internet traffic. Companies and websites willing to pay more will have faster access while those who aren't willing or can't pay will have throttled, slower access. Think full broadband access versus dial-up access.

 

This is a huge problem and it is disturbing that an organization that is supposed to protect freedom of communication and information could be so misdirected. There is no reason for net neutrality to be abolished other than to allow ISPs to line their pockets. Many ISPs have competing interests, too. Comcast owns NBC, what's to stop them from throttling competing networks or video service providers? Then there are the questions about how this will affect copyright law. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has alluded to illegal content being easier to take down, but what does that mean? It is quite possible that this means smaller sites that get slapped with alleged copyright infringement will be summarily taken down. The specter of SOPA rears its ugly head once again.

 

This issue should be especially worrisome for gamers. In a world where games are becoming more and more reliant on an open and freely accessed internet, what will these new policies mean? Titanfall, World of Warcraft, and League of Legends are entirely online experiences, will players have to pay more to their ISP to be able to game with their friends? What about streaming content via Twitch? Extra Life in particular benefits from participants streaming their marathon gaming sessions, but higher costs or lower performance could really muck everything up.

This is something that will affect how we game for the next decade or more.

 

It all comes down to one question: What can we do about it? There are a number of options on the table right now. First, try contacting your legislators and requesting that they take action to protect net neutrality. If you don't know how to get in touch with them or even who they are, I suggest using whoismyrepresentative.com. Second, there is a good, old-fashioned petition that needs a few thousand more signatures. Finally, the FCC plans to submit these new policies for public comment via a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking beginning May 25. This is important because the FCC is tasked with protecting the public's interests. Enough backlash against these new rules could be enough to sway the FCC or be grounds enough for public interest groups to sue and change these policies.

 

We still have time to make a difference. Let's make it count.

 

For more information, watch this intelligent and even-handed breakdown of the issue by Extra Credits.

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