Editor’s Note: For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ⌘+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a new weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. We’ll spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but we promise it’ll all be in plain english. Continuing on from his work on the first two issues (let’s call those a beta) is writer Darren Murph, the former Managing Editor of Engadget and a Guinness World Record holder for number of blog posts published. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.
I’m not even going to use the phrase; as John Oliver so eloquently described, the mere mention of that phrase puts most people to sleep. Instead, allow me to introduce you to a tale of corruption, monopolistic business practices, and a cascading series of events that will result in ever-growing prices for Internet services such as HBO and Netflix. Oh, and that rapid pace of innovation you’re seeing in mobile app stores? Imagine a world where that doesn’t exist.
MORE DECRYPTED TECH SUBJECTS: The World Cup’s 4K Tragedy | What AT&T’s Merger Means For You | What iOS 8 Means for Apple Users
Dystopian? Perhaps, and we should hope that it remains nothing more than a theoretical worst-case scenario. But what’s happening to our Internet freedoms should terrify anyone who uses the web. Up until now, the world wide web has existed with practically no rules or regulations. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a nonprofit entity that essentially keeps the words and numbers in your address bar from getting too crazy. Outside of that, the Internet is a self-regulating entity. No government controls it, no gatekeeper stands in the way of you sharing anything on it, and you pay no fees to set up shop on a virtual piece of Internet real estate.
These facts, without question, have enabled the connected universe to thrive as it has. And, much to the shock of many, patrons of the Internet have given no reason for changing this arrangement. Dark corners of the online universe exist, but by and large, access to a free Internet has benefited societies across the globe. I’ve visited remote island nations in the South Pacific that have turned their entire economy around because they can showcase their homes’ natural beauty and local handicrafts to potential tourists tens of thousands of miles away. I’ve watched an upstart named Netflix single-handedly destroy an entire sector of video rental firms that refused to adjust prices to suit the marketplace. I’ve witnessed a no-name outfit called Skype tear down communication barriers between international borders, enabling far-flung families to remain connected for next to nothing.
We could very well be at the end of what has thus far been an incredible and joyous ride.
At present, a guiding principle of the Internet is that all data that’s transmitted should be treated equally. Obama’s emails should arrive at the same time as your emails, and Psy’s latest YouTube hit should be rendered on your phone’s display just as promptly as an obscure artist’s first stab at making ends meet in the music business. There are no VIPs on the Internet, making it the last true level playing field that the global economy has to study.
The FCC is standing idly by while Internet service providers continue to pour millions of lobbyist dollars into the coffers of those in Washington who should be doing what’s best for the people.
What’s happening behind closed doors could undermine all of this. Recently, Netflix’s streams weren’t being delivered with the same rapidity as they once were to Comcast subscribers. A bit of public fighting ensued, but Netflix’s quality skyrocketed shortly after depositing a (presumably hefty) sum of money in Comcast’s pockets. That, friends, is likely the beginning of the end.
While the FCC has every right to step in and prevent acts like this from occurring, they’re standing idly by while Internet service providers continue to pour millions of lobbyist dollars into the coffers of those in Washington who should be doing what’s best for the people. In fact, new FCC chairman Tom Wheeler left his post as a lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry to run an agency that’s supposed to protect people like you from lobbyist influence. It’d actually make for a great snippet in The Onion, except there’s nothing false about it.
One has to wonder if anyone is going to stand up for keeping the Internet as is. Free Press, a nonprofit devoted to media in the United States, has launched a “Save The Internet” campaign. The trouble is getting people to pay attention — most consumers are either overwhelmed by the complexities of the issue, or simply don’t believe that they have the power to make a difference.
If Internet service providers are allowed to charge for so-called “fast lanes”, there are a few potential results. First, monolithic video streaming sites such as Netflix will be asked to pay large sums to ISPs in order to keep the quality of their clips high. Eventually, those costs will be passed along to you in the form of higher monthly fees from Netflix. The kicker here is that this isn’t even the core issue.
As this plays out, geniuses in college dorm rooms across the country will be actively discouraged from taking their video streaming startups live, knowing full well that they’ll never have the capital to pay these same ISPs for equal streaming avenues. Even more frustrating is knowing that Netflix grew as large as it did by not having such restrictions. By default, their product — if shipped in a world where tiered Internet provisions (“fast lanes” and not-so-fast ones) exist — will show poorly beside a cash-rich outfit such as Netflix. This leads to less competition, less innovation, a stale marketplace, and higher prices passed along from companies who can afford to pay to be in the fast lane.
When considering something more subtle — say, the app marketplace that makes your smartphone tick — similar outcomes could arise. At present, Instagram serves up millions of photos every single day. To do so, it relies on bandwidth from a great variety of Internet providers. Generally speaking, these photos pop up fairly rapidly as you scroll, but what would happen if an ISP decided to charge Instagram for serving up all of those pretty pixels? To prevent sluggishness in the service, a behemoth such as Instagram might pony up. To make that revenue back, it could resort to tossing more advertisements into your stream, or it might begin to charge users for access.
And then it’s just like in our Netflix scenario: while established businesses such as Instagram can afford these hypothetical access fees, what’s an app startup to do? Facing competitors with faster “lanes” of the Internet, what entrepreneur in their right mind would go through with their underdog business? And without anyone to challenge the existing players in the space, what incentive will said players have to repair bugs, introduce new features, and keep their userbases happy?
We haven’t reached such a scenario just yet, but the fact that it’s even a possibility should be infuriating to the general populace. As Mr. Oliver also pointed out, the only real power we have is to inundate the FCC with comments using its website. That’s not to say all of those won’t be ignored as cable and wireless companies ramp up lobbying, but it’s the only real shot we’ve got at keeping the Internet a playground for all.