Thursday, December 14, 2017

Net Neutrality

As expected, the FCC in the United States has voted, along partisan lines, to repeal internet neutrality. I think the saddest part of that incredibly sad sentence is the "as expected".

Ajit Pai, whom Donald Trump appointed to head the Federal Communications Commission, used to be the chief counsel for Verizon (Canadian readers: think Bell or Rogers, only somehow worse, if that's even possible). He seems to be on Verizon's payroll still, because this decision so blatantly ignores the wishes of pretty much every member of the American public who does not work for a telecommunications company.

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are required to treat all data on the Internet equally. Bell, for instance, would dearly love to charge its users extra to access Netflix...or to slow Netflix's streaming down to the point it can no longer be used...but under net neutrality regulations, they can't do either thing.

It's hard to overstate how popular net neutrality (NN)  is among the general public. 83% of Americans agree with it. It's awfully hard to get 83% of Americans to agree on anything these days. And many of those supporters are extremely passionate.

Perhaps a little too passionate. Ajit Pai's children have faced death threats. The hearing today was briefly evacuated because of a bomb threat. No matter the issue, this is unacceptable. 

Whenever I am confronted with a situation where one side is insanely popular and the other side is branded as evil incarnate,  I make a point of looking closely at that other side. There are two main arguments against net neutrality. The first is that under net neutrality, your grandma who only uses the internet for email and maybe Facebook is paying more than she should be, subsidizing the gamers and streamers who can power through a few terabytes of data in a month. The second argument is that NN should really stand for "not needed" -- the internet grew from nothing into the life-changing force it is today WITHOUT net neutrality.

The first argument is easy for a Canadian to counter. In this country, as in most countries, most of the population understands "the greater good", and doesn't mind paying a little more for it. (You may not believe gamers and video streamers are for the greater substitute whatever you want. The internet has transformed almost every area of life -- commerce, communication, love, education, job name it. In short, the internet is a lot more than just email, whatever Grandma might think.

The second argument is a little harder to demolish. Yes, the internet grew from nothing into what it is today without net neutrality. But what it is today isn't quite as benign as you might think. ESPECIALLY in Canada. It has to do with competition, or rather, lack of same.

In in ideal world, net neutrality WOULDN'T be needed, because any ISP trying to game the system would be punished, harshly, by customers fleeing to a competitor. Except in Canada there are no competitors.

Rogers. Bell. Telus. Colloquially known as 'Robellus'. Collectively, they ARE both the providers and that which is provided in this country. Each provider owns a huge chunk of media, and each of them colludes on pricing. It's like gas stations--everybody knows they're in cahoots, but nobody has the balls to do anything about it.

Bell, for instance, has all the rights to every HBO production. If you want to watch HBO legally in Canada, you MUST be a Bell subscriber. More and more television is being streamed through the internet; it would be trivial for Bell to go even further and block all Rogers content. Or slow it down. Or charge you a premium to see it.

It's not just TV, either...Bell owns strictly internet content. So does Rogers. They don't seem to have a problem (wink-wink) "aligning" their pricing so that it's damn near identical...but make no mistake, these companies are in cutthroat competition and they're consolidating every which way they can. In the early days of the internet, before it ate video stores, bookstores, music stores, every other kind of store--well, back then it was a whole different animal.

The old media wants its piece of new media. And they'll stop at nothing to get it. Make no mistake, even though our government is in favour of net neutrality right now, that could change in an instant. Our FCC -- the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Corporation (CRTC) -- has rarely made a truly consumer friendly decision, and it is stuffed to the gills with former Bell and Rogers muckamucks. Quite frankly, I trust them only a little more than I trust Mr. Trump. I fully expect within the next five years to have to bundle my internet the way I used to have to bundle my cable.

No comments: