The Free and Open Internet: 1989-2014?

This is the way net neutrality ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper.

That’s my takeaway from the FCC’s unveiling a little over a week ago of its proposed new net neutrality rules, the replacement for the rules the courts threw out this past January, that effectively undermine the core premise of net neutrality by allowing ISPs to charge content providers for “priority” service to their customers. While ISPs could not outright block service, and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says he would not allow any company to use the rule to quash potential competitors or otherwise discriminate, such a rule would still advantage moneyed interests and make it harder for newer, smaller content providers to compete, especially those engaging in bandwidth-intensive services like video, which already have high capital and maintenance costs.

The truth is, though, this is the culmination of a series of moves that have slowly chipped away at the open Internet. AT&T has already flirted with making certain sites effectively cheaper for its customers, and the Comcast/Netflix deal may have been a bellwether for ISPs to impose such tolls with or without new rules. Moreover, over the past decade the Internet itself has undergone numerous changes as people have been increasingly filtering their Internet experience through social media and apps, both of which have the potential to undermine the open Internet and thus degrade support for it. We’ve reached the point where people within the industry are openly trying to argue against net neutrality – sometimes claiming in Orwellian fashion that ending or degrading net neutrality will somehow help preserve Internet freedom – and for “smarter” networks, with the chief of staff for an FCC commissioner arguing for networks that can “discriminate” between “vital healthcare info” and “a YouTube video of John Travolta mangling Idina Menzel’s name at the Oscars.” Of course, it should not be the place of ISPs or government to determine what is “vital” or not, but we may fast be approaching the point where that is precisely what they do.

Earlier this year, we marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the World Wide Web. Before the Web came along, the Internet consisted primarily of expensive terminals at college campuses, and a series of walled gardens that effectively represented the Internet to the few people able to access it at home. Over the course of the 90s the Web effectively crushed all the walled gardens that had been built up and became synonymous with the Internet in most people’s minds. Now we may be drifting back towards an Internet landscape of walled gardens, under the aegis of ISPs, social media sites, and apps, where independent voices become harder and harder to be heard.

If one image could explain how we got to this point, it would probably be the one that accompanied Chris Anderson’s infamous 2010 Wired piece declaring “The Web is Dead”. It didn’t quite say what he wanted it to, but it did show that by 2010, video made up 51% of all Internet traffic in the United States. Keep in mind, this was over a year before Netflix’s Quikster fiasco, when the company tried and failed to split off its DVD distribution service, let alone Netflix’s major venture into original content with House of Cards and the like; YouTube was probably the biggest engine of all that video traffic in 2010.

As Anderson’s critics pointed out, this wasn’t because people were spending half their time on the Internet watching video, but simply because of the massive amount of bandwidth video consumption chews up. Now imagine video consumption double or triple, or even more, what it was in 2010 – that is to say, imagine all the other uses making up half, a third, or even less what it was then relative to the rest of the Internet. Imagine every ounce of video consumption that currently takes place on traditional broadcast and cable television moving to being carried over the Internet – a future that looks increasingly plausible. It’s easy to see how the Internet could become, from the perspective of the ISPs, first and foremost a video delivery service, even as all the other uses could easily make up half or more of its popularity, with the vast majority of the traffic on its wires coming from a small number of services. At that point, charging those services for the traffic coming down their pipes would make too much sense (even if ISPs were more willing to upgrade their networks on their own than they are now). Net neutrality would seem a quaint notion ill-suited to the realities of the modern Internet. (Better compression technologies will help, but those gains could be wiped out by demands for 4K and other high-end video technologies.)

The Internet may technically be able to absorb the intense demand for video coming its way over the course of the rest of the decade, but it’s looking likely that net neutrality will suffer greatly, if not be an ultimate casualty – unless we have some way to take some of the demand for video off of the Internet, or at least reduce the strain it might cause. The answer to that could come from a surprising source – a blast from the past flirting with its own complete obsolescence. This week I’ll have a series of posts on how sports is increasingly traditional linear television’s main reason for being, and how that’s warping both industries – and what that says about the Internet-centric future video is starting to transition to, as well as the role different technologies could have in saving net neutrality… if it isn’t killed off first.

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