The recent announcement from the Federal Communications Commission that it would propose a new rule allowing Internet service providers to sell a “high speed lane” to companies that can afford it had inspired a backlash from the Internet community. Activist groups as well as some well-known figures in the tech world have begun organizing opposition to the move.
At issue is the concept of “net neutrality.” Until now, Internet service providers have been, at least in theory, neutral about the content their subscribers access. A streaming movie from Netflix and a photograph from Instagram are supposed to get the same priority when it comes to the use of ISPs’ infrastructure.
The FCC’s proposed rule would essentially create a two-tiered system that would allow ISPs to offer premium access to content providers who could afford to pay for it. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said that the change would not have a negative impact on either content providers or end-users. But among tech professionals and Internet activists, there is a strong assumption that the rule will create a “segregated” Internet where smaller and newer companies are unable to compete with established firms and their deep pockets.
For their part, ISPs argue that they bear the cost of constructing and maintaining the infrastructure of the Internet, and ought to be able to charge what the market will bear for their services. Because data-heavy services such as streaming video and online gaming eat up a lot of bandwidth, ISPs should be able to charge the services offering them a premium for better access.
Alexis Ohanian, one of the founders of the popular link-sharing site Reddit, recently launched a campaign to crowd-source the funds to erect a billboard across the street from FCC headquarters advertising opposition to the move.
“The FCC plans to kill the idea of net neutrality and replace it with a 'cable-ized' version that costs more for consumers, enables discrimination across services that make use of the net, and makes it harder to access the stuff that we access each day today (from video streaming to file saving and sharing),” Ohanian wrote as part of his appeal on the crowdfunding site Crowdtilt. “On top of all that, it'd have a chilling effect on entrepreneurship - all for the benefit of a few cable companies.”
Among those actively organizing against the FCC is the Worcester, Mass.-based group Fight for the Future, which helped lead earlier battles against initiatives opposed by the tech community, including the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act.
The group’s web site leaves no doubt about where it stands on the issue. It’s home page contains a large red box that says “URGENT: If you’re not freaking out about Net Neutrality right now, you’re not paying attention.”
Some of the rhetoric is plainly over-the-top. On the Fight for the Future website, a page where visitors can sign a digital petition to the FCC is headlined: “You won’t be able to see this page if the FCC wins.” This is plainly untrue, though arguably, it might wind up taking longer to load than it currently does.
The real question on the minds of activists on both sides of the argument right now is whether the biggest names in the tech world will get behind the effort opposing the FCC. Google and Netflix are rumored to be considering a grass-roots effort to mobilize resistance to the proposal, but so far have not made any public statements.
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