Net neutrality and “TV Everywhere” authentication are now the central hub of angst for consumer groups and Internet Freedom Fighters across the land. The notion of net neutrality represents a Cyberutopia where indie filmmakers can compete with NBCU, News Corp, Time Warner and Viacom—all because evil corporations must treat all bits equally. And “TV Everywhere” has become an evil plot by evil corporations to spread evil destruction. Why? Because! It looks evil! It feels evil! It’s just friggin’ evil, man!! But who are these Broadbandidos plotting our demise? Is it the heartless, soul-sucking, puppy-snuffing executives who run America’s biggest companies? Or is it the oppression-fighting, equality-loving, puppy-protecting populists who want to save us from doom?
It’s no coincidence that the level of vitriol has grown almost in lockstep with national anger over Wall Street’s role in the global financial crisis. The difference is that Wall Street actually did some bad stuff and now must face the music of the jeering crowds. Cable operators, however, have yet to strangle the Internet, unless you count various attempts at bandwidth management that have incensed many interest groups but failed to raise any alarm bells in the courts (Case in point: The Comcast-FCC case, which prompted the court to slap the FCC but also re-energized talk of reclassifying broadband as a net-neutrality solution). Cable operators have tried to preserve the broadband experience for the largest number of people. In fact, these evil Cable Guys practically created the modern Internet by taking a crappy, dial-up network of discussion groups and text-heavy Web sites and supercharging them with broadband into the YouTube-Hulu-Facebook cultural force of today.
Don’t think cable deserves credit for this? Sorry, but check the history. The telephone companies did nothing—absolutely nothing—to bring broadband to America. They didn’t want to cannibalize their ridiculously profitable T-1 business, which sold 1.5Mbps T-1 lines to corporations for exorbitant prices. So they sat on their hands for years. Only after cable started deploying broadband (delayed several years by the train wreck called the 1992 Cable Act) did the telcos start offering DSL lines to consumers at reasonable prices. And only after cable started cutting into telcos’ business did Verizon and AT&T start modernizing their 100-year-old infrastructures to create FiOS and U-verse. Consumer groups, which have long demonized cable as the worst industry in the universe, will never acknowledge the billions of dollars cable spent to make broadband a reality. They can’t. It doesn’t fit their narrative, which depends on exploiting the public’s deep-seeded mistrust and, in some cases, outright hatred of the cable industry. To think that Consumerist.org would name Comcast as the “Worst Company in America” when we have candidates like AIG and any number of Wall Street entities from which to choose… it’s just silly and ridiculous. Comcast has its problems, yes. It’s far from perfect. But the worst? C’mon.
Reports in recent days suggest that FCC chmn Julius Genachowski may not reclassify broadband under Title II after all—despite the cries of consumer groups. Perhaps he understands that the best way to preserve a free and open Internet is to make sure that companies offering access to it are able to make tons of money from it. Yes, gobs and gobs and gobs of unregulated, stinking stacks of money. Is it possible that companies will try to go too far—that some distributor might try to favor its own TV Everywhere traffic or that of its affiliated “partners” over bits from those of us making magic in our garages? Perhaps. But it must be obvious by now that the public will punish any such attempt brutally with boycotts and constant pressure that would only lead to government action. It’s for this reason that it probably won’t happen on any mass scale. And if some abuse does occur, we all have to ask whether it would be better or worse than the “cure” of one-size-fits-all government intervention.
The Internet will never be truly neutral, folks. Net neutrality rules or not, big corporations will always have the upper hand because they have more money than small startups creating new software or indie content. But the notion that ISPs would block or degrade traffic to suppress independent thought doesn’t have any basis in reality. It’s McCarthyism. It’s fear of what might happen rather than an acknowledgement of the current reality. The best way to ensure fairness is to keep ISPs healthy and profitable so they keep upgrading their infrastructures. How will a smart, hard-working indie producer create the first viral 3D video sensation on the Internet? By reaching a large audience that’s there only because the infrastructure owners upgraded their networks to 100Mbps and beyond to handle 3D. Here’s an irony: Every time your cable bill goes up, some of that money goes to upgrade broadband infrastructure, which makes it easier for independent content of all shapes and sizes to compete with that traditional linear fare. The American public is therefore subsidizing cable’s online competition, not to mention thousands of small businesses that use all those bits to level the field with big retailers. That’s the beauty of the current unregulated system. Big profits equal more bandwidth, which equals, well… more equality.
Companies that control the Internet pipes aren’t tone deaf. They understand the mood of everyday people and consumer groups, not to mention the protective tendencies of our government. To incite a riot by abusing their power as gatekeepers would only threaten their precious long-term profits. It’s just bad business. Good, old fashioned corporate greed—not government rules—is the force that will keep the Internet neutral for the foreseeable future. The Broadbandidos are out there folks. And they are us.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX)