Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission proposed allowing the creation of faster and slower traffic lanes on the Web. Companies could charge more for faster delivery. Today was the last day for comments. The issue may sound arcane, but it has apparently struck a chord. More than three million comments have been registered at the FCC. That’s so far.
Hari Sreenivasan, in our New York studios, turns to a well-known tech writer and columnist to find out why.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Joining me now is David Pogue, founder of Yahoo Tech.
So, I know you have done this with sock puppets before, but imagine if you could without the sock puppets, the net neutrality debate. What is it?
DAVID POGUE, Yahoo Tech: Well, net neutrality is this principle, very complicated, very legal, that all Internet traffic should be un — should be equivalent.
So, it shouldn’t matter whether you’re Netflix or whether you’re some startup. The carriers of your Internet signal, Comcast, Verizon, and so on, should treat it all the same, just in the same way they wouldn’t presume to decide what you can say on your phone call or bill them differently.
So, since the beginning of the Internet, this is how it’s worked. All Internet traffic is treated and charged the same.
HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s the status quo.
DAVID POGUE: That’s the status quo.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And the proposed rules would do what?
DAVID POGUE: So, the cable companies and, like, Verizon and Comcast, they are saying, well, wait a minute, Netflix is responsible of 30 percent of all data going on our pipes. Shouldn’t they pay more?
So, they — so the FCC has now said, OK, OK, OK, here’s the thing. There are no current rules specifying whether or not there’s net neutrality. It’s just always been. So let’s put some laws down. And we’re going to say is, yes, in general, we’re in favor of all Internet traffic being treated equally.
However, you, the Verizons and Comcasts, it’s OK with you to make side deals with the biggest Internet service providers like Netflix and YouTube and to charge them more for the right to have their data go stutter-free and faster. They want to create a faster lane for Internet companies who want to pay more.
And that’s very upsetting to many consumer groups, who are saying, well, what that means is, A, we’re going to pay more on our end, the consumers, and, B, what about little interesting startup companies, the next Facebook, the next Twitter? They don’t have the big bucks to pay for the fast lane. You’re going to stifle those startups.
HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. And so the Verizons of the world are saying what? No, actually, these are the costs that we need to have to make sure the infrastructure survives?
DAVID POGUE: The Verizons are saying, dudes, we’re building out for the next generation. We’re building better towers, faster pipes. We need money, which they really don’t. Verizon’s profit last year was $11 billion. Comcast’s was $8 billion or so.
So they’re doing just fine. The really interesting thing is we were this close to having net neutrality written into law. So, in 2010, the FCC said, OK, guys, net neutrality, here’s the law. And a district court threw it out, not because they didn’t believe in the principle, but because the FCC itself — this is where it gets complicated, so I speak slowly.
The FCC itself years before that had classified Internet providers like Verizon, not as utilities like phone companies, but instead as an information service, like a TV studio or something. Therefore, the court said, so it’s not that we don’t believe in your rule. It’s, you don’t have the jurisdiction to govern them.
You yourself classified them as not a utility where you would be able to govern them, but as an information service. It’s not your business.
HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. So if these rules were to change, what’s an example of something that would be different for Joe consumer?
DAVID POGUE: It’s already begun.
So, Netflix is now paying Comcast, not because it had to, but because it wanted to, for faster delivery, stutter-free delivery of Netflix videos. Netflix didn’t like doing this, but the data showed that Netflix streams were getting slower and slower and slower to people, so they felt they had to.
So, inevitably, what the answer is higher prices. It’s going to mean we pay more, if these deals, if this FCC rule is permitted to go through.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And there’s also this concern now that some of these people, like Comcast, for example, also own content creators, so they could maybe favor one over another?
DAVID POGUE: This is where it gets even more complicated.
Yes, Comcast owns NBC, so what’s to stop Comcast from helping NBC’s signal get through faster and stutter-free and maybe slowing down PBS’ just a little bit?
HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, that said, Tom Wheeler, the head of the FCC, has said, no, I’m telling you, that is not going to happen. We’re going to write that into the rules. Right?
DAVID POGUE: Right.
So, Tom Wheeler is the new head of FCC. He is in the guy in charge of writing this stuff. He’s the guy — this is a big perception problem — he spent 30 years before this job as chief lobbyist for the telecommunications and cable companies. It’s the fox guarding the henhouse. Or at least that’s how it’s perceived.
But, yes, he says, no, no, no, no, that’s not going to happen, we promise. We’re for an open Internet, he says. So his argument is we have put this clause in, as long as it’s commercially — commercially reasonable, these side deals will be permitted, commercially reasonable. But we won’t let anything bad happen, he’s saying. So he’s asking us to trust them.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So, during this open comment period, it has been amazing to see hundreds of thousands of e-mails, comments, phone calls to Congress.
Are you surprised? This is a relatively, as you said, kind of a wonkish technology corner.
DAVID POGUE: Part of the problem is that it’s very complicated. It’s very legal, it’s wording, it’s a long history. It’s the way the government works behind the scene suddenly being thrust into the faces of the public.
So there’s a bad guys/good guys picture that is being painted here. It’s more nuanced than that and it’s more complicated than that. So, Tom Wheeler is not saying you’re going to pay more and the cable companies win. It’s not that simple. But that is how it’s being reduced, right? It’s being reduced to a black hat/white hat situation. It’s more complicated.
I bet many of the people commenting at FCC.gov don’t fully understand the history, the business about classification as a utility, all that stuff. But at center, I can say for sure that if the FCC’s rules go through as proposed, we will wind up paying more, and, yes, the little interesting Internet startup companies will need more money to get into those fast lanes.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, David Pogue of Yahoo Tech, thanks much.
DAVID POGUE: Thank you.