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The largest, most ambitious challenge to Net Neutrality

Wed, 11/13/2013 - 8:42am
Chris Warner, Executive Editor

This summer, I learned one of the few cable TV channels I sometimes watch is no longer available to me without upgrading to another “tier” of channels. None of those other channels appeal to me, so I simply decided I would do without the channel. My decision was pretty sound, but I believe my choice was not a choice at all. Where is the a la carte programming that consumers have been asking about for years? Of course, I’m not holding my breath. If anything, this type of frustrating “choice” may be coming from your Internet service provider (ISP) pending a court case that will play out in the next few months.

In September, Verizon went to federal court to challenge the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Open Internet Order. Passed in 2010, these rules appear to be a compromise for the disparate parties that have a stake in how traffic flows on the Internet. The rules forbid ISPs from blocking traffic and discriminating against (such as slowing or throttling) traffic generated by, say, companies that offer competing services, and they demand transparency about how the traffic is handled. The rules are seen as less onerous on wireless providers, which is unsettling since much of the future of networking revolves around mobile devices. Still, the carrier is moving ahead with its case, and in the opening arguments (Verizon v FCC), the company is putting its opposition to current Internet rules in plain sight, as described by Timothy Karr in The Huffington Post:

“In court ..., the judges asked whether the company intended to favor certain websites over others.

‘I'm authorized to state from my client today,’ Verizon attorney (Helgi) Walker said, ‘that but for these rules we would be exploring those types of arrangements.’”

And:

“In response to ... questioning about whether Verizon should be able to block any website or service that doesn't pay the company's proposed tolls, Walker said: ‘I think we should be able to; in the world I'm positing, you would be able to.’"

So there it is.

A federal court is going to decide whether the same policies, offerings, non-offerings and contract disputes that have been a thorn in the side of cable subscribers for years can soon become the new normal on the Internet.

Regulation is rarely an appealing option, but my cable channel example above demonstrates what we can expect when we trust corporations to be the Internet’s gatekeeper: The profit motive will kick in — and the existence of this case proves it is already kicking in — and those content providers with the deeper pockets can participate and those without can go home. Without an open Internet, many of the successful content providers and innovators we have seen to this point on the Internet may have had a much more substantial, if not impossible, barrier to entry for their businesses. And, the Internet has always given regular individuals a platform to share ideas and information. Do we really want the profit-driven ISPs to jeopardize this treasure?

The government’s role in Net Neutrality must be to continue to say “Hands off the content. Don’t fix what isn’t broken.” That’s it. It may be too much for many naysayers to handle, but it should mean the world to all of us regardless of the federal court’s upcoming decision.

By the way, the cable channel I no longer can view is called “NFL Red Zone.” But should Net Neutrality end, I — along with everyone reading this — will be seeing red after all.

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