Cable better watch out. Net neutrality just got an endorsement from the Grandfather of the Internet. That’s right. The guy who invented the World Wide Web (not Al Gore… the other guy, Tim Berners-Lee) came out swinging last week in defense of a free, open and relatively anarchistic Internet—and it has sparked even more debate about net neutrality and what it all means. His bottom line: Dark silos are bad. Freedom is good. No need to go over all the specifics (Steve Effros’ column in Mon’s CableFAX Daily did an excellent job breaking this all down, by the way).
Berners-Lee’s piece isn’t really an anti-cable rant; it focuses more on general principles of openness, taking Facebook to task for trying to corral everyone into its privacy-ignoring Silo of Creepy Friendship while also comparing any attempts by ISPs to favor certain data traffic as “commercial discrimination.” The latter is more the issue pegged to cable, which certain camps are absolutely, 100 percent sure is planning to cordon off large areas of Internet video onto a toll road and apparently destroy the bright future of joyful freedom that Berners-Lee set in motion years ago when he and his visionary allies conceived of the World Wide Web.
But nothing has happened yet. Could it happen? Sure. Cable operators, telcos and other powerful distributors/aggregators of video and bits are running for-profit businesses. If they think they can make a buck or protect their existing revenue streams by favoring traffic or building toll roads, it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibilities. Just this week, Level 3 complained about Comcast’s “physical and environmental testing regime” and insinuated that it’s just a precursor to all the scary things net neutrality advocates have been warning about for years. But it’s all he said/she said at the moment. Level 3, which handles Netflix’s traffic, has plenty of reasons to raise a stink right now, with Comcast trying to get its NBCU deal approved. It may have some legitimate gripes, but the idea that Comcast would dare do anything right now that could be used by net neutrality advocates to derail its deal seems patently suicidal and therefore unlikely. More likely is that this is just a tough negotiation between two corporate giants. And they’ll work it out.
Think about it: No one—from the public to the Congress to the White House to the FCC—really wants the Internet to become a massive toll road of restrictions populated by haves and have-nots. And that’s exactly why it won’t ever happen. It’s political suicide. The mere threat of net neutrality rules is enough to keep the industry in check. If it turns out it’s not enough at some point… if suddenly we wake up one morning and can’t access that indie film made for $5K or find ourselves trapped in a Facebook Vortex of Death for which there is no escape… well, at that point it might make sense to look at some net neutrality rules. We’re not there yet.
Perhaps it’s time to even turn this into a more philosophical discussion. What is the Internet? What are our expectations of it? A well-oiled machine like Facebook gives us a wonderful interface that’s a joy to use but is also somewhat restrictive and closed. But people love it. They absolutely love it. And yet every day we’re all disturbed and annoyed by the way Facebook gradually makes it more and more difficult for us to leave. But Facebook wouldn’t get away with it if—on some level—we didn’t tacitly approve, knowing full well that the social media site gives us a much easier path to staying in touch with friends and even finding information than other more “open” options. But people can still post links to just about anything on Facebook, which drives huge numbers of eyeballs to tiny little corners of the Internet that otherwise might get no attention in a world in which nothing was siloed or organized. Isn’t that aiding openness on some level?
The bottom line: Can’t we preserve the openness of the Internet while still offering organized silos that enhance the user experience? Is there no way for the overall freedom of the Internet to co-exist with our personal freedom to choose how we connect to the content we love? Can’t we all just get along?
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX).