Thursday, May 15, 2014

Stuck in Internet traffic on a toll road

I’ve been hearing about “Net neutrality” for about seven years now, and I’ve seen about a dozen petitions to preserve “it” – and even signed a few. This whole kerfuffle over the Internet is an extremely complicated, controversial subject.

But that’s techy stuff, and I’m a copy editor by nature and trade. Let me just stream some TV programs on Netflix, check my friend’s blog, buy stuff online from my local hardware store, and read emails from my family members in rural areas.

Uh-oh. As a copy editor, I also do a lot of research. It seems all those activities could be made more onerous and time-consuming in the near future.

The New York Times ran a story titled “Awaiting the FCC’s Road Map to Net Neutrality,” this morning, Thursday, May 15. The story uses an analogy to describe the “Open Internet” proposal of the Federal Communications Commission.

The newspaper’s analogy may sound very familiar to Land Line readers: “Offering an established, deep-pocketed company with an unimpeded route to customers is like building an E-ZPass lane on a toll road.”

Whew. Good thing we have time to research this and read about it. But hold on! The Times updated the story already, and the headline now reads “FCC Votes to Move Ahead on Net Neutrality Plan.”

But what is Net neutrality anyway? Business Insider in its article “Net Neutrality For Dummies, How It Affects You, And Why It Might Cost You More” defines it thus: “Net neutrality prevents Internet providers like Verizon and Comcast from dictating the kinds of content you’re able to access online. Instead, Internet providers have to treat all traffic sources equally.”

So why should we care if the definition or reality of Net neutrality changes? Well, smaller companies and startups that can’t afford to pay for faster delivery of their content on the Internet would likely face additional obstacles against bigger rivals. That might sound like a familiar scenario to many small-business trucking readers.

The next phase of this proposal will be four months of public comments. Then FCC commissioners will vote again on redrafted rules that will “take into account” public opinion. Gee, a federal agency “listening” to individuals and small businesses before redrafting rules. Seems I’ve heard this before.

So what’s wrong with what is being called a “tiered Internet”? Well, consumers could be hit in the wallet and also could be stymied by the “gatekeeper” model of this “Open Internet.”

Tim Wu, who is on the faculty of the Columbia Law School, calls it “the Tony Soprano business model.” The content provider can pay a fee, the network “owners” make a profit, and you (the consumer) pay more.

OR the content provider can refuse to pay the fee, and the end user (you) is left with slow-loading, possibly/probably degraded content. So much for hearing what Aunt Sue in her rural farm town has to say in her email to you. Her news about Cousin Bill is still poking along on a gravel road out there somewhere.

You may be thinking that Silicon Valley, including Google and Facebook, must be behind this proposal for a tiered Internet. Not true. Most of Silicon Valley, some 150 tech companies, has protested the FCC’s Net neutrality plan that would allow Internet providers to charge for faster, better access to consumers. Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft all called the prospect of paid fast lanes a grave threat to the Internet. You can read their May 7 letter outlining their support for a free and open Internet here.

As The New York Times article puts it, “Upstart companies might not be able to afford such a direct connection, and their content might face delays as it travels to consumers. Picture a burgeoning online video game company that is trying to provide real-time gaming but finds itself stuck in traffic, like an out-of-towner on the New Jersey Turnpike who does not have E-ZPass.”