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A Simple Viewpoint About Net Neutrality

The original concept of the Internet was to be free and open. Well, not in the sense of charging you for the service, but letting you access the content you want without a gatekeeper. Sure there are sites that require usernames and passwords, and cater strictly to people who are customers who sometimes pay for access, but if the site is legal, your ISP shouldn’t get involved.

Now in the early days of the online world, only a few had open Internet access. Such mass-market online services as AOL and CompuServe (later acquired by AOL) chose to dole out the Internet in tiny digestible bits, while keeping you mostly inside their walled gardens.

That was a long time ago, and when you order up Internet service today, you expect that any site or service you access will present content to you at near the speed for which you contracted. Sure sites might run slower because their servers are overloaded, or for reasons beyond the control of your ISP, but you should otherwise expect things to just work. Well, unless your ISP has an outage.

Things went awry when large content providers clogged the Internet pipes with their content, usually streaming video. Perhaps the “worst offender” is Netflix.

According to a recent AP report, “Netflix increased its share of fixed-line Internet traffic in North America in the first half of 2014, accounting for 34 percent of data flowing to consumers during peak times, up from 32 percent in the latter half of 2013. That’s according to a new report from Sandvine Inc., a Canadian networking services company.”

I imagine a lot of that traffic overload occurs when Netflix is premiering a new series, as millions of people are binge viewing “House of Cards” and other great shows. All right, I usually take it all in with single episodes, most of the time anyway. But lots of Netflix customers complained about stuttering or constant rebuffering.

Whose at fault when this happens?

Well quite often it’s your ISP, doing some traffic control or throttling to reduce the impact on their networks. Many of these ISPs run their own cable TV services, with content delivered free of any slowdowns, and it doesn’t count towards that service’s online bandwidth cap.  In order words, the company is playing favorites.

To get around this, Netflix has actually contracted with a few ISPs, such as Comcast (the largest broadband service in the U.S.), so they can place their own servers in the ISP’s datacenters and be assured of providing uninterrupted service to customers at the highest possible speeds. All it takes is a big check to open the pipes. If a content provider, particularly a startup, doesn’t have the funds to pay a ransom for uninterrupted traffic, that’s just too bad.

In all fairness, Netflix claims they are only paying Comcast and other broadband services for a direct connection, not access to a fast lane. Take that anyway you want, but it’s also true that Comcast customers essentially stopped complaining about performance glitches with Netflix.

Now the FCC tried to enforce net neutrality, meaning that the ISP couldn’t selectively throttle Internet traffic or exact fees to enter a fast line. Unfortunately, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decided, in a ruling earlier this year, that the FCC didn’t have the authority to issue that order.

So it was back to square one.

Sad to say, the latest FCC proposal only confuses the situation, by essentially conveying the impression that everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others. What this means is that, in theory, the new ruling would prevent ISPs from blocking or prioritizing online traffic. But individual content providers could still pay for a fast lane. It seems a case of having it both ways, and the responses contained in millions of communications received by the FCC appear to be mostly negative.

This week, President Obama stepped in, at long last, calling for true net neutrality, no ifs, ands or buts. The Internet must be free and open.

Predictably Republicans are complaining that it’s just another example of government overreach, an improper attempt to stop private industry from acting in their own best interests. Firebrand Republican Senator Ted Cruz outrageously called it “Obamacare for the Internet.”

The Mac Observer’s outspoken Jeff Gamet remarked that it “seems the Senator needs some schooling on what a free and open Internet really is, and why it’s so important.”

So there’s no confusion, the FCC can act as an independent body and rule as they wish on net neutrality. In light of that court decision, however, the final ruling will have to be handled differently. One possibility is to classify an ISP as a consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. That section deals with public utilities.

However, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former cable and wireless industry lobbyist, has indicated the agency is looking for a more nuanced solution. Nothing is expected to happen until next year.

While I hesitate to get into politics, I should think that a political party devoted to individual freedom would recognize the right of the individual to receive unfettered Internet access, and not find themselves unable to access content at acceptable speeds because of an ISP’s arbitrary decision to selectively throttle traffic from those who don’t pay a ransom. At the same time, an Internet company has the perfect right to charge you for extra bandwidth and higher speeds. It’s all about the freedom to do business in a responsible fashion.

But is it their right to determine which content to offer at full speed and which content to throttle? Doesn’t such behavior restrict your personal freedom to access a free and open Internet?