By Shira Ovide
I will concede that it gives me the willies to allow more self-determination by the telephone and cable companies. That’s what the Federal Communications Commission is doing by wiping away rules that require providers of internet access to treat all online information the same.
Those who have fought for net neutrality rules have held up the basic principle that no one should have an unfair advantage online. Giants like Amazon and the suburban dad inventing a new toy should have the same path to reach us electronically. The idea is Amazon can’t pay Comcast Corp to make sure Americans’ web browsers speedily arrive at its toy section, while Comcast sticks the dad in a slow lane. But like most high-minded principles, the ideals of net neutrality aren’t reality. No matter what the FCC does, America’s internet is not an equal place and it’s only going to become less fair.
The reality is big companies do have a privileged path into people’s digital lives. They have the money and the technical ability to make sure their websites and internet videos speed through internet pipes without delays or hiccups. Google parent company Alphabet Inc, for example, famously obsesses over fractions of a second of delay when people surf Google web searches or YouTube.
The company has said the vast majority of internet users will give up if a web video stalls. To make sure no one ever dumps a YouTube video, then, Alphabet can rely on its 74,000 employees and the most impressive network of computers on the planet, on which the company devotes a big chunk of its $12 billion in yearly capital spending.
No suburban dad can match those resources. Google doesn’t need to pay AT&T or Verizon to ensure its YouTube videos have a zippier route along those companies’ internet pipes. Google’s unmatched employee talent and money ensure those YouTube videos have a fast lane into people’s homes. And even though Google doesn’t need to pay AT&T Inc or Verizon Communications Inc, it sometimes does either directly or indirectly.
Google, Netflix Inc and other rich companies have long had agreements to connect their computer equipment directly into telecommunications companies’ networks. In some cases, those web companies pay fees for the privilege, known as paid peering. These payments are a legal and accepted – if occasionally controversial – cost of doing business, even under the stricter internet regulation the FCC is seeking to undo.
Giant companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft Corp also have built their own cross-country or undersea pipes for their internet traffic, which means their online services zip along the internet without bumping up against other web traffic. The suburban dad’s toy company can’t afford its own undersea internet cable. And it’s not only the big internet companies that press their advantage. America’s providers of telephone and internet access do it, too.
Those telecom companies often have their own web video programming or other digital services, and they can and do give them a leg up in ways no regulatory body has addressed. For example, AT&T discounts its DirecTV Now internet television offering for people who have its high-end mobile phone service. That means AT&T – without doing anything nefarious to slow internet traffic to rivals – is making its owned web programming more appealing to its customers.
The FCC also permits the telecom providers to accept fees to give access to certain websites or apps without customers worrying about their data costs. Again, the internet is not a level playing field, and AT&T doesn’t have to speed up or slow down anyone’s web traffic to make it this way. In one of the biggest signs of basic internet reality, one of the biggest advocates of net neutrality is no longer on the front lines.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said this spring that his company believes in the principles of net neutrality, but it’s not life-or-death for Netflix anymore. “It’s not our primary battle at this point,” Hastings said at a technology conference in May. “We think net neutrality is incredibly important. It’s not narrowly important to us, because we are big enough to get the deals we want.”
Hastings is right. Big and popular companies have privileged positions in today’s internet, no matter how the rules are written and enforced. That’s also why Google and Facebook aren’t arguing that vociferously for the FCC to keep stricter regulation of internet service providers. So let’s not mourn the end of net neutrality at the hands of the FCC. Net neutrality was already dead.