Is Internet Freedom Under Threat From Internet Service Providers? [MUO Debates]

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Is Internet Freedom Under Threat From Internet Service Providers? [MUO Debates]
Is Internet Freedom Under Threat From Internet Service Providers? [MUO Debates]

Consider a scenario in which your Internet service provider has complete control over the material you see on the Internet. What if I told you that world had become a reality?

In January 2014, a U.S. Federal Court rejected FCC “net-neutrality” regulations, which would have required Internet service providers to provide access to any online material and applications, regardless of the information or source. It would be illegal to favor, ban, or manipulate service quality for certain services or material.

While the United States does not write the rules for global Internet access, it does often influence how those regulations are enforced abroad. The majority of big internet services have their headquarters in the United States. This might imply that ISPs affecting information distribution could have an impact on the rest of the globe as well.

The issue everyone is asking right now is whether the absence of regulation would cause ISPs like Verizon to instantly adopt service restrictions that significantly impact the quality of services like Netflix or Hulu, in favor of digital streaming services supplied by the ISP or its partners. Will Internet service providers enhance their earnings by requiring such firms to pay “service delivery” fees? Will Internet users like you and me have to start paying more for such services?

These are the topics discussed in today’s MUO Debates forum. Please read how the MUO writers believe this will affect online freedom of information, and then provide your thoughts in the comments section. Don’t forget to vote at the conclusion of this argument!

George Root – Google, Amazon and Others Will Fight Back

I believe that service providers like Verizon vastly underestimate the financial might of Google, Amazon, and other huge websites. It may be more advantageous for Google to extend their existing provider network rather than pay Verizon more money to accomplish something that should be done for free.

Many of the major ISPs seem to be cable television companies, which are used to restricting the kind of material that consumers may watch on their TVs. In that regard, cable television providers are similar to the music business in that neither can embrace the truth that they must develop to survive the changes brought about by the Internet, rather than attempting to modify the Internet to their favor.

Of course, the concern is that Google would launch its own ISP, forcing websites to pay a premium to be viewed on the wider Google network, but this is already happening to some degree. If I wanted my website to be viewed by millions of visitors on a daily basis, I could pay Google a lot of money and my website would get a lot of traffic. However, it is the organic increase of web traffic that permits content to bring in traffic over time, which keeps people coming back.

Finally, I believe that challenges like these are overcome by the unwavering belief that the Internet should be a fair playing field for everyone. If Verizon attempts to push websites into the bigger network, another Internet network that does not charge that premium will emerge. Greed can only carry a business so far. After all, Verizon is toying with techies, and techies always find a way around everything.

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Ryan – Cable Company Tactics Are The Problem

One of my main fears about NetNeutrality (or the lack thereof) is that the Internet will become similar to cable television. Indeed, it is possible that the presence of cable provider fiefdoms in most local regions contributes to the challenges caused by a lack of NetNeutrality.

What if your ISP chooses to obstruct your Netflix video stream while offering full, unrestricted bandwidth to its own competitive video streaming features? Netflix has declared publicly that it is concerned about this. What are your options? Change your Internet Service Provider? Many consumers have little option since the system is controlled by the same cable corporations. If you’re fortunate, you may be able to move to a DSL phone-based service, but that ISP may suddenly use the same bandwidth-throttling practices.

The worry isn’t so much that the cable provider will use price to censor or regulate particular material as it does with its present programs. The risk is that it will attempt to influence the trend of consumers downgrading cable bundles and shifting to Netflix and other video streaming services for content. Now, cable companies are not legally prohibited from making the quality of competing services so bad that customers are driven to return to Momma Cable Company – the borderline-illegal monopoly in practically every city.

Our one ray of hope for breaking free from such monopolies, online video streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, looks to be under danger from the US government’s failure to properly regulate the giant cable/ISP firms.

Bruce Epper – Infrastructure Impedes Competition

George: I believe you are dodging what is most likely the most serious problem here. What happens when the local cable operator and/or the local telco ban all rival streaming video services or rate-limit them to the point where they are functionally unusable? All Internet providers in the region will now only enable you to utilize streaming video.

This occurred in 2010 when Comcast was banning Netflix from their consumers by extorting/blackmailing the Netflix partner, Level 3, to pay a recurrent charge to enable them to “transmit Internet online movies and other material to Comcast’s customers who request such content.” Who will build the infrastructure for another network to take the place of what is being taken away from us?

After all, these telecoms and cable companies currently own the entire “last mile” networks, and with the court ruling overturning the FCC’s netneutrality rules because they are not “common carrier” networks, how do you expect people to connect to the “new Internet” that you believe will emerge to replace what has been lost?

Most broadband providers now impose usage limitations on Internet services. Comcast said in March 2012 that customers who use the Xfinity app on the XBox, are XBox Live users, and have another cable box with Xfinity would not have their streaming video data used against their quota, however Netflix and Hulu will be. Another area where Verizon’s concept of a “two-sided market” would benefit corporate greed: these providers will charge the provider a premium to convey their material to the customer while charging the consumer a premium to have this content sent to them unimpeded by the carrier’s network.

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Since this verdict, I’d love to be sitting in a C-level office at any big ISP. The benefits will be enormous in the coming years.

James Bruce – Net Neutrality Won’t Matter

In the long term, I believe net neutrality will be irrelevant. I mentioned it on the show the other day, but Google is about to flip the script with its broadband speed rankings based on YouTube play metrics. Instead of Google paying ISPs to distribute YouTube videos, ISPs will pay Google to create faster backbones to the YouTube servers, allowing them to rank higher on the list as the customer option. Customers moving away from them for better ranking ISPs will be considerable when they are placed further down (assuming equal market forces of course, and that there is actually competition).

Of course, this has no bearing on other services such as Netflix, but one may conceive a meta ranking site that aggregates speed data from all prominent services. The development of no enforceable netneutralitylaw will only help to force these rankings into being where they were previously unnecessary.

Never underestimate the power of a popular ranking list: businesses will throw money at you to be higher on the list.

Guy McDowell – What If ISPs Try Toppling Google?

To play devil’s advocate, what if the major ISPs squeezed out Google? Is Google prepared to jump in and rescue the day, as well as themselves, before that happens? If I had authority over a large ISP and your Web use, I would also have power over your search engine and streaming media preferences.

The big ISPs will know that limiting our Internet access too significantly and too rapidly will result in a reaction. Instead, I see people playing the game in the same manner that they did with cable television. They attempted to convince us that we needed cable to receive stuff that we couldn’t get over-the-air. For a long time, many of us had both over-the-air and cable television; it was the best of all worlds. Because the over-the-air networks recognized that Americans were increasingly viewing cable, they wanted to be on cable as well. When cable began to provide the same programming as over-the-air but with higher transmission quality, we stopped purchasing antennas or TV sets that could receive the over-the-air signal. We’re now trapped with cable. Yes, if you want to go through the bother of setting it up, you can still get over-the-air, but most people don’t.

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Why wouldn’t they do the same with access to the Internet? Give us premium material in addition to free content, and the free content will eventually desire to earn the same money as the premium content. Introduce minor throttling on free material such that it functions, but not as well as paid stuff. Then both the content supplier and the customer will be under pressure to have the material in the premium category.

If I were an evil media magnate, that’s what I would do.

I believe that some individuals may devise workarounds or local other access methods. Smaller ISPs would first prosper since they do not censor material, but they would ultimately be bought out by larger ISPs. Then, after 10-20 years, we’ll simply accept that this is how things are, and we’ll probably persuade ourselves that we enjoy it that way as well!

Justin Pot – This is Already Happening

This is already occurring to some degree, Guy. You cannot view any Olympic programming online in the United States unless you first demonstrate that you are a paying client of a cable or satellite TV provider (and even if you do, the service is laughable compared to what CBC is offering up in your home and my native land).

The business in charge of broadcasting the games in the United States? NBC is a part of Comcast, a cable corporation well-known for its excellent customer service. Comcast also restricts residential customers’ bandwidth, with one exception: its own streaming service, which is heavy on NBC material.

The cable business owns one of the main broadcasters and is already taking use of this position. And now they are free of a legal constraint.

Competition is all well and good, but it does not exist in the majority of the nation. These firms are pressing state governments to prohibit municipal broadband, and Google can only install so much fiber in so many places. Net neutrality helped shape the Internet into what it is today, and it is being phased out. It’s unknown if a company like YouTube will be able to take over the internet in 10 years, or whether the tiered Internet would render any newcomer ineffective.

Conclusion – What Do You Think?

Is the loss of Internet freedom due to a lack of legislation ensuring equal access to information on the Internet? Is the Internet about to be converted into another another corporate-run information platform dominated by the wealthy? Will any of this really matter? Will everything remain the same? Cast your vote, and then share your thoughts in the comments area below!

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