I must applaud John for making the philosophical case for opposing the “net neutrality” plan, which he accurately identifies as a yawn-inducing, eyelid-closing irritant for most of us. The philosophical case is ultimately more important than the “wow, this hits my wallet” case — but it’s the latter that is starting to be clarified in the business press. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) plan to impose net neutrality will include an authorization for Internet providers to meter net usage and charge more to those who move more data around on the Web.
Today the average customer pays for a certain minimum level of bandwidth, regardless of how much data he interacts with. Under net neutrality, he will be charged for a capped amount of data per month, beyond which he will pay extra. Most of us probably think of this as a limit on our ability to download things: to view videos or play games online. But the entertainment-industry press reports from a different perspective – one that every content provider, including bloggers, ought to pay attention to. Among content creators in Hollywood, it is understood that a net-neutrality scheme based on data surcharges will put smaller, less-well-heeled producers at a disadvantage when it comes to uploading their content and ensuring it is available to consumers.
Big media corporations have the deep pockets to keep their content available to Web consumers even if the basis for user billing shifts to the amount of data involved, as opposed to the data rate. If net neutrality is implemented on the proposed basis, those corporations can absorb the extra costs to their customers; an obvious method would be subscription schemes that relieve customers of data surcharges. But however many permutations there are for adjusting to net neutrality, its bottom line for smaller content providers will be limiting the types of content they can offer. Live-streaming, as well as Web distribution of longer videos, will be increasingly limited to the bigger, established corporations. Data surcharges will limit others — both customers and providers — to word processing and low-resolution images. Surcharges may well limit the amount of Web research bloggers like those at CONTENTIONS can do.
Net neutrality will make the same level of service cost users more. This first-order impact is probably the most significant to the immediate political equation. It will be unpopular, particularly among online video and gaming customers, and it will affect a lot of medium-size businesses. But in the longer term, net neutrality promises to be inimical to our opportunities for free intellectual communication. Today, the Internet is a unique vehicle for initiative in that regard. There is no information medium of similar reach to which unlicensed content providers have access, with low overhead and little regulation.
It is instructive to review the history of regulation for the cable industry. Channelization, licensing, and regulation of content providers are the norm to which the FCC will revert whenever it is given the opportunity. With net neutrality, the FCC appears to be starting down that path — not by explicitly declaring an intention to, but by preparing to price many of the less-regulated providers out of the Internet content business. If the principle of regulatory authority is established, the FCC is unlikely to stop with pushing prices up. John is right: even if you can’t remember exactly what net neutrality is about, knowing that it would expand the basis for federal regulation is a good reason to be “agin’ it.”