(graphic: Lily Therens)

(graphic: Lily Therens)

Protecting Ourselves From a Slower Internet

Without net neutrality, small businesses and consumers lose

Back Commentary Nov 12, 2014 By Mac Clemmens

You may have heard about the “internet slowdown” that happened in September. While the term “slowdown” isn’t accurate because the internet was running at full speed, prominent sites like Netflix, Vimeo and Etsy displayed a symbolic loading symbol to protest recent actions by the Federal Communications Commission to eliminate network neutrality.

Network neutrality is the idea that the internet operates freely — just as it has since its inception. Opponents have recently made significant progress in lobbying the FCC to loosen protective restrictions, allowing internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon to assign websites into different “lanes” at differing speeds based on an ISP’s own arbitrary criteria, like pay-to-play fees.

Such a proposition is alarming. Speed has a huge impact on a website’s usability and conversions. According to Fast Company, Amazon calculated that a page taking one second longer to load could cost the company $1.6 billion in lost sales each year.

Allowing an ISP to choose the speed at which a given site operates would have a profound effect on the internet as we know it. Users would shift from their preferred sites — shopping, news and music sites, for example — to sites that their ISP decided should load faster.

Network neutrality is especially essential in the world of startups and small business. As you can imagine, neither AT&T nor Comcast were probably very excited about sites like Hulu or Netflix entering the marketplace. But thanks to neutrality, users are able to access them at the same speed as everything else. If Hulu or Netflix had to pay Comcast (and get their blessing), they might never have come to be. Or they might have been only able to pay Comcast but not AT&T for “premium” speeds, leaving the services reliably available to some users but not others. Once again, cable providers would be choosing which programs we see. The freedoms and competition sparked by the internet would be extinguished.

This isn’t far off. In fact, it has already happened. In 2013, users accessing Netflix started to have connectivity issues. Users watching their favorite shows would experience interruptions in service. Netflix put up a “We’re sorry, but Comcast is having network issues” notice that made Comcast furious, leading to a public spat in front of the FCC and others. Each day, however, Netflix was losing thousands of customers. After all, if your users can’t see your content, you’ll suffer a huge loss. Out of desperation, Netflix paid Comcast to put special caching servers inside the Comcast network, restoring reliable service but also creating a haunting precedent that content could only be reliably delivered for those willing to pony up.

To be fair, at certain points of the day, Netflix traffic comprised more than one third of all internet traffic on the Comcast network, so it wasn’t a trivial matter. But in a country where miles of metropolitan fiber is currently laying unused due to municipal agreements with large ISPs that render them inactive, ISPs benefit from an artificial scarcity of bandwidth, and end-users lose. And to the public, having two conglomerates to choose from is hardly fair competition.

So far, public comments to the FCC are overwhelmingly in support of sustaining network neutrality: 99 percent in favor according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit focused on government transparency and accountability. It is only a small but powerful minority that wants new rules to leverage unprecedented power over the free flow of information. And why shouldn’t they? After all, they’re publicly-traded companies looking to build shareholder value. Unfortunately, their interests appear to be at odds with those of the public.

But whether the free and fair flow of content is a realm for additional profit is a matter for government regulation and public discourse. Comcast, Verizon, AT&T are defending their interests, and the public must do the same.

Editor’s note: Mac Clemmens joined Comstock’s editorial board in 2017.

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