Do Not Adjust Your Modem!


Do Not Adjust Your Modem
| published September 10, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

There is no need to adjust your router or your modem. Those slow speeds you experienced on Wednesday are…well…they’re just all part of the show.

Led by the popular sharing site Reddit, and by a service called Pornhub, millions of people worldwide may experience internet delays and slowdowns as part of an orchestrated protest against the Federal Communication Commision’s acquiescence in a recent court decision regarding the issue of net neutrality.

In short, net neutrality is the concept that says that internet providers should provide their lanes of traffic without regard to content or source, and without pricing arrangements which charge some services more money to gain faster speeds. Long a cherished philosophy of internet freedom and innovation, the theory of net neutrality ran headlong into problems during the last year when a Federal judge ruled that the notion of net neutrality was not enforceable as outlined by the FCC. Later, the FCC backed down from its own long-held—but tenuous—embrace of neutrality, rewriting its own standards to allow for a flexible interpretation of the concept.

This opened the door for deals between content providers and the biggest of the ISPs. Netflix, for example, almost immediately signed a special (mostly undisclosed) package deal with cable giant Comcast—a new arrangement which will provide Netflix and its users with much faster speeds. Sensing an opportunity to reorganize their own business pricing plans, AT&T and Verizon immediately followed suit with similar proposed arrangements with content providers and media services.

Thus, the concept of net neutrality—that all websites be treated equally by all ISPs—seemed in imminent danger of vanishing.

Critics of the FCC’s decision have cried foul, and have pointed out the myriad of obvious problems as a result of tiered service by the largest ISPs: the biggest, richest services and products will be obliged to pay for faster speeds; smaller, underfunded services and sites will be stuck in the slow lanes; web-based innovators, product developers, and social media inventors will be snuffed out, unable to shell out the cash to insure that Verizon, AT&T or Comcast will give them access to the fast lanes; technological development will suffer, letting the U.S. perhaps fall behind tech competitors worldwide.

Worse, critics note, net neutrality will serve as a kind of de facto censorship, as internet providers like Time Warner, Comcast and Charter can pick and choose who gets access to the fast lanes, who is stuck in traffic in the slow lanes, and who gets sidelined perhaps altogether in what could only be referred to as the emergency lanes or the parking lots.  One fear is that the big ISPs can limit access to certain types of services and sites, offering sluggish speeds and other limitations to websites with sexual material or unpopular political views.

Dozens of major online services, social media sites and content providers joined the protest. Those companies included Etsy, Kickstarter, Wordpress, Cheezburger, Mozilla, Foursquare, and others. Visitors to these sites or users of these services experienced simulated slowdowns, complete with little hourglass icons, spinning circles, or “please wait” messages, while the sites and services moved at carefully-paced, glacial speeds.

Upstart companies can expect to feel the pain of a non-neutral internet first. Technology and web-based start-ups—which typically develop out of the need to create an application or service with little or no major capital—will suffer as users encounter markedly slower speeds than the large services able to pay for premium access and delivery. Small companies which use heavier bandwidth, for example for streaming video, will surely face difficulties, and newer companies will watch as customers quickly lose interest and migrate toward other products or activities.

Some critics have rightfully pointed to the older business models of telegraph lines and the electric power grid. In both cases, there was a presumption that even though the providers of these services were private companies, the public interest was greatly served (especially in the heady days of economic development in the United States) by the even-handed delivery of services. Some advocates of net neutrality use this metaphor: imagine if the power companies had been able to develop a grid in which large companies could pay for better, more reliable electrical service, but individuals were forced to pay for choppy, on-again-off-again, substandard power to their home or office. The outcome of that business scenario would have radically altered the way the American economy developed during the twentieth century.

Still, there are advocates of a non-neutral internet, including those who say that the companies who have spent billions to develop the vast architecture and build those broadband and fiber optic lines ought to be able to set pricing variables based on specific business arrangements. Furthermore, defenders of a tiered system say that by flatlining all internet pricing and access, the same inhibitions would apply to the big players: Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner and others would be disinclined to invest in technological advances or developments which might bring about even faster speeds and improved products and services.

Defenders of a non-neutral web suggest that many of the biggest online products and services already basically freeloading along an architecture they did not build—and they cite Google, Skype and others as the example—using up vast swaths of bandwidth in the process.

But for today, advocates of net neutrality hope that the massive protest—with its simulated slowdowns and delays—will have the desired outrageous effect, thus convincing millions of Americans to get involved in the process of demanding an unfettered highway for their internet activities.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Will Slower Mean Faster for Net Neutrality?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; Sept. 6, 2014.

Net Neutrality: Is Some Web Access More Neutral Than Others?; Thursday Review; July 11, 2014.