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Net Neutrality Takes a Hit

Imagine that a private company creates a public toll road. This actually happens, so it’s not a crazy idea. In exchange for building and maintaining the road, the company gets to collect tolls. That’s the monetization model.

Of course, once that’s in place, that company (or, more likely, its shareholders) might randomly decide that they simply deserve (or want) more money. So they do a deal with a specific car manufacturer. Now the tolls will be higher for cars that aren’t made by that company. Then they do a deal with a particular grocery chain: cars carrying groceries from competing chains are denied access to the road.

Imagine that the electric company establishes a protocol for communicating with appliances across the power lines. Not satisfied with the stable revenue that a utility provides, let’s say they try to goose earnings up a bit and do a deal with a particular appliance vendor. Now, if you use the wrong appliance, you’ll be charged more for the power. Or perhaps power will not be delivered to that appliance at all.

These sound like crazy scenarios, right? They’re unlikely, since both entities are regulated. Well, that’s what net neutrality is about – the guy that provides the highway should give equal access to anyone that wants to get on the highway. The FCC is trying to make that happen in the same way that agencies regulate utilities and private toll roads. Except that the guys that own the information highways are just itching to take more control over who gets to go on their highway.

This would be a different story if we could make an ISP decision each time we went online. We then might pick one ISP for one website and a different ISP for some other website. But that’s not how it works. We only get one ISP. Rather than consumers getting a choice, it simply becomes a bigger piece of the fight for Ultimate Control of Everything. He/She with the most bucks wins. Good ideas and useful stuff without a big bankroll? Buh bye.

Yes, all the ISPs say they’re interested in maintaining an open internet. That may be partly because the FCC is trying to force them to, and they don’t want to be forced to, so they have to promise to play nice. If the FCC pressure goes away and the shareholders get an urge for a new yacht, will they still subscribe to lofty ideals that leave money on the table? If, say, Verizon decides to do a deal with Microsoft, might that mean that Bing would be the ONLY search allowed on the Verizon network? <shudder>

A US appeals court today decided that the FCC didn’t have the authority to craft the rules it put in place. It’s not clear yet whether they’ll appeal, change the rules, or just give up. If it’s the latter, then, barring some major transformational change, the internet will practically fall under the control of a few ginormous companies. Yes, anyone will be able to create a website and put it on the net. But if they can’t afford the fees for preferential (or even for any) access, will anyone see it? And if the website competes with content that the ISP already owns, then no fee may be high enough.

Granted, such provisions aren’t in place now, and it’s premature to assume they will happen. On the other hand, if none of the ISPs had any interest in putting any such restrictions in place, why would they spend so much legal money trying to preserve their right to do so?

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