Yes, net neutrality could be the issue that inspires a Tech Age political revolution
First, some background from Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times.
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers can't discriminate among content providers trying to reach you online "“ they can't block websites or services, or degrade their signal, slow their traffic or, conversely, provide a better traffic lane for some rather than others.
That's important because control over traffic flow gives ISPs tremendous power, especially those that control the last mile of access to end-users "“ cable operators such as Comcast and telecommunications firms such as Verizon and AT&T. Without regulation, they'd have the ability to force content providers to pay up for unrestricted transmission to their customers.
While President Obama has pledged to defend net neutrality, his appointee to the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, appears to be siding with the would-be monopolists. Hiltzik continues:
His proposal would forbid ISPs to block any legal websites or services, but allow them to favor some traffic under "commercially reasonable" arrangements, to be reviewed by the FCC on a case-by-case basis. A deal Netflix recently reached with Comcast to ensure that the video company's content appears bright and sharp on Comcast customers' iPads and TVs "“ one that Netflix suggests it signed only because it had no alternative "“ would probably fall well within the rules.
There is no question that allowing such arrangements would be a major retreat for the FCC. Wheeler contends that barring "commercially unreasonable" deals that "harm the Internet" or hurt consumers will be protection enough for the open Internet. His predecessor as chairman, Julius Genachowski, disagreed.
In 2010, Genachowski's FCC explicitly rejected "the argument that only 'anticompetitive' discrimination yielding 'substantial consumer harm' should be prohibited by our rules." That standard, the FCC held, "could allow discriminatory conduct that is contrary to the public interest." The rules must be broader, the commission wrote -- they must forbid ISPs to "pick winners and losers on the Internet."
Yet that's exactly what Wheeler's proposal would allow.
What's worse is the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable. This empire of content and distribution would rival Rockefeller's hold on both oil production and railway access. Timothy B. Lee of Vox.com warns that the end of net neutrality means "smaller companies with less cash and fewer lawyers are going to be at a competitive disadvantage."
The miracle of the internet is that anyone can set up a web server, anywhere in the world, and instantly reach everyone else, no matter where they are or what network they're using. But if broadband providers started dividing their networks up into fast lanes and slow lanes, things could get more complicated. To get satisfactory service for your website, you might have to negotiate fast-lane agreements with thousands of ISPs all over the world. Companies that didn't have the money — or the manpower — to do that would be at a competitive disadvantage.
There's also a danger that large internet service providers will abuse their monopoly power. Most of the leading American broadband companies also sell paid television services that compete directly with online streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. Network owners might be tempted to relegate online video services to the slow lane to prevent them from becoming a competitive threat to their lucrative paid television businesses. Or they might charge competing services a big markup for access to the fast lane, ensuring that they won't be able to undercut them on price.
A final problem is that a multi-tiered business model could give ISPs perverse incentives. An ISP might be tempted to make its slow lane slower — or at least not upgrade it very quickly — to encourage content companies to pony up for fast-lane status.
Where is the outrage? I asked that question of a half-dozen technology experts, including Obama administration veterans who witnessed the derailment of the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, a 2012 copyright protection bill that technology activists feared would undermine internet access an innovation. Two years after an online insurgency overwhelmed the gilded institutions of Washington, the grassroots are relatively quiet.