Legalized Discrimination

I work with a number of startup companies, as I’ve mentioned before. There are a whole host of issues that these newbies face but one they don’t, if they’re digital, is the same sort of access to their potential audiences as is enjoyed by their much larger, entrenched competition. The reason for this is an underlying principle of the Internet which is that all traffic – those little packets of information that carry data, pictures, sound, etc. – is handled equally, both by the “backbone” companies responsible for transport and by your Internet Service Provider. You know – the folks (or folks, if you have a cable provider that provides internet access and a wireless company) to whom you send a check each month in return for the ability to send cat videos to your friends.

The reason for this post is to call your attention to the increasingly loud noises out of DC about giving those ISPs the ability to discriminate. Three years ago, John Oliver did a fantastic job of explaining why this issue is important and last Friday night, he did so again. Why did he need to? Because rules that were put in place to protect everyone are being changed.

Suppose you watch those cat videos on three different video platforms: YouTube, Vimeo, and a startup called CatVideosRule. You notice that the first two are crystal clear and in full high-def, while the last takes forever to load, buffers a lot, and isn’t very clear. It’s likely that the reason for that isn’t that the startup is using bad technology but that your ISP is prioritizing traffic. Maybe they are getting fees from YouTube and Vimeo. Maybe they don’t like cat videos and are slowing down the startup. The reason doesn’t matter. What does is that it’s discrimination and it’s going to be legal. In my mind, once ISPs get to pick and choose, it’s not a big step for them to begin censoring the content as well. You know: if you want to be on our network at full speed you will not criticize us, etc.

The new head of the FCC is suggesting that we just ask the ISPs to promise they’ll play nice. These are the same ISPs that promised you 50MB speed and deliver 30MB with no fee adjustment or apology. We are already seeing some services become “zero-rated”, which means that using them doesn’t count against any data plan you may have. It’s bad enough that the ISPs are boosting their own services at the expense of others. Legalizing another form of discrimination could be the death knell of one of the things that have fostered the dynamic, disruptive growth of our digital world. Do you agree? Are you following this story?

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