For those of you who live in the U.S., you probably are aware that today is Internet Slowdown Day. For those of you who do not reside here, you are likely to nevertheless find this intriguing.
So what’s it all about?
The short answer to the above can be summed up in two words, “Net Neutrality.” Yes, the third rail of Internet public policy making continues to rear its head.
For those who have been following this imbroglio since the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark Verizon v. FCC decision early this year, which stated the FCC had overstepped its authority by prohibiting Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from blocking or discriminating against traffic to lawful websites, the saga of the FCC trying to thread the needle of competing interests in drafting new Net Neutrality rules has been if nothing else great theater. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and his cohorts have tried to come up with rules that would prohibit ISPs from discriminating against various content providers, but at the same time allow the ISPs to charge for premium connections. The firestorm that erupted has been almost unprecedented.
We are now at over 1 million comments filed on the FCC’s proposed new rules and counting. The arguments are well known from the various factions. Web companies and consumer advocacy groups don’t think preferential connectivity is a good idea since it means the big guys who can afford to pay will only get bigger and stifle innovation. In fact, many are urging the FCC to regulate ISPs as common carriers to assure universal and non-discriminatory access for everyone to the Internet. ISPs counter that big cost causers should be cost bearers as well and that premium connections and not regulation are, interestingly, the way to induce competition and innovation.
Reality is, positions are hardened, legislation maybe in the offing to keep the Internet free of what proponents fear will be ISP toll ways, and thanks to the Internet both sides are turning up the heat.
Internet Slowdown Day is the latest manifestation of what can best be called social action. Big web companies including Netflix and Reddit, along with advocacy groups such as Free Press, Fight for Freedom, Demand Progress and the powerful Internet Association (in essence a proxy for companies like Google and Facebook who don’t wish to get directly involved at the moment, decided to demonstrate to the FCC and Congress what a slowdown means. Organizers selected today, September 10, as their call to/click to action day.
While the Internet will not actually slow down, the protest has come up with a nice way to get attention and get even more people involved in influencing the process. Thanks to Imgur, protesting websites will display the spinning wheel seen below with the word “Loading.” This of course will not load, thereby making the point. Visitors will be given instructions on how to then make their feelings about being unable to load thanks to what they think the impact of poor Net Neutrality policy would do to the Internet.
Will it work?
The goal of the protest is simple, i.e., create so much momentum behind not allowing ISPs to offer better connections to what are deemed the privileged few, at what could end up leaving the rest of us in the slow lanes of a “best effort” Internet whose best is far from good.
The attempt to use the Internet as a weapon and “democratize” the fight has proven effective in the past. In fact, a similar tactic was employed back in 2011 to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). In that instance, a grass roots effort enflamed by a broad collation of Web companies, not-for-profits and consumer advocacy groups derailed what were seen at the time as special interest legislation that would unduly protect the entertainment and retail industries’ on digital property rights issues.
Just how many folks will rally to this latest initiative remains to be seen. As some have observed, nobody wants to pay more for the Internet, even those who see benefit to being able to provide differentiated better quality experiences to their customers over premium capabilities. The problem is that you get what you pay for, and don’t get what you won’t pay for and therein lays the dilemma for policy makers.
ISPs do need to be able to generate the capital needed to upgrade their networks, and not just for the few but for the many. How they get that capital is really the issue here, and it is non-trivial. U.S. citizens need to be concerned that we do not fall behind the rest of the developed world in offering ubiquitous broadband services. On the fixed side of things, the U.S. already has fallen out of the top ten countries in terms of the average speed of our connections. On the wireless side, a recent Deloitte report says that while the U.S. has the best wireless broadband service in the world, if policy makers don’t act correctly and soon there could be dire consequences for the U.S. economy.
If Internet Slowdown Day works that may not necessarily be a good thing. The FCC and Congress have their hands full on this one since there are extremely powerful interests involved on both sides and the stakes could hardly be higher. The real challenge is that doing nothing, or at a minimum letting policy lag/gridlock set in is an undesirable outcome. Failure to act is no longer an alternative but figuring out what “rough justice” looks like remains elusive.
Have a slow day!
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