A fight over the future of the internet is starting to boil over.
Net neutrality, the idea that internet service providers such as Comcast or Verizon should treat all content equally, has been a topic of contention for a number of years. Internet service providers, the companies that sell internet access, are interested in cutting deals with content providers such as Netflix or Spotify to make their content cheaper for consumers. But smaller content providers fear that if Netflix is cheaper than other movie streaming sites, then consumers will never try any other streaming service. As a result, internet activists and technology companies have pushed for so-called net neutrality regulations, which forbid ISPs from making some content available more easily, more cheaply, or more quickly than other content.
The Federal Communications Commission has tried to enforce net neutrality principles, but ISPs have avoided the issue, and the FCC’s regulations have been blocked by the courts on several occasions. However, last year, the FCC came out with its most stringent set of regulations yet, saying that it would regulate ISPs like telephone utilities. This would leave little room for violation of net neutrality principles. At the same time, after years of tiptoeing around the issue, ISPs and big technology companies are now pushing their luck both here in the US and abroad. This has set up a confrontation between internet providers and regulators, and the sparks are starting to fly.
In November, T-Mobile announced a new program that it called “Binge On.” Subscribers to the program would be able to access certain web services that T-Mobile had partnered with, such as Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and Spotify, on their mobile phones or tablets without those services counting against mobile data caps. While streaming a Netflix movie would eat up a normal subscriber’s data plan for the entire month, Binge On subscribers, who had paid for the all-access Netflix plan, could stream as many Netflix movies as they wanted on their phones.
Net neutrality activists quickly raised concerns about the program. The problem was that T-Mobile was giving special treatment to certain content providers that it had made special deals with. A small new video streaming service might be at a disadvantage if it couldn’t strike the same deal as Netflix did because it was easier and cheaper for T-Mobile customers to watch Netflix instead of any other streaming service.
The program was a significant violation of net neutrality principles. T-Mobile was clearly treating some content different than others, and many in the tech community became very concerned as a result. The Verge, a prominent tech news site, went so far as to publish an article titled “T-Mobile is writing the manual on how to f**k up the internet.”
To add fuel to the fire, soon after the Binge On program was launched, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a prominent non-profit advocacy group focused on technology issues, discovered that T-Mobile was reducing the quality of video streamed by Binge On customers. A Binge On subscriber would not be able to watch high-definition video, even from video streaming sites that did not participate in Binge On, something which T-Mobile had not made clear about the program. This was potentially an even more serious net neutrality violation, since it had a direct adverse effect on all video content providers who wanted to deliver high definition video to T-Mobile customers.
It was apparent not only that T-Mobile was running headfirst into a confrontation with activists and regulators, but also that T-Mobile didn’t really care. After the EFF published its findings, John Legere, the outspoken CEO of T-Mobile, tweeted a video of himself in which he asked, “Who the f**k are you EFF, and why are you stirring up so much trouble, and who pays you?”
Legere eventually toned down his rhetoric a bit, but T-Mobile continued its Binge On program. The FCC has begun to investigate Binge On but hasn’t taken any action to stop the program yet. As of last month, T-Mobile was trying to convince the FCC not to block the program.
T-Mobile isn’t the only company that has been pushing the boundaries on net neutrality, and net neutrality isn’t just an issue in the US. Facebook has recently gotten into trouble for testing net neutrality rules in India. While Facebook isn’t primarily an internet provider, it has been providing free basic internet service to people in developing countries on their mobile phones through a program called Free Basics.
But there’s a catch to Free Basics. While subscribers do get free internet access, they can only visit a certain set of websites for free. These sites generally include basic news and weather sites as well as (of course) Facebook. The program has rolled out in a number of countries, but it has been particularly criticized in India, where activists are essentially making net neutrality arguments to stop the program. They say that internet providers should not block certain websites or create a “two-tier internet.”
Facebook argues that the only way to provide free internet is to control the websites that people visit and has allowed third party websites to register with Facebook and join Free Basics if they meet certain requirements. But many have pointed out that this is a somewhat self-serving argument. Facebook would certainly like to have an internet that it controls and in which people are more likely to log onto Facebook.
After significant outcry against the program, India’s telecommunications regulator eventually blocked Free Basics last month. While Facebook says it will keep trying to convince Indian regulators that Free Basics should be legal, the decision represents a significant victory for net neutrality activists. Facebook also didn’t win any friends in India when a member of its board implied that India’s decision on Free Basics was an overreaction of anti-colonialism, triggering a multitude of angry responses on Twitter and in the Indian press.
The conflicting path that net neutrality is taking around the world highlights the complexity and importance of the issue. In the US, regulators seem to be interested in enforcing net neutrality rules, but it is unclear how strict they are willing to be. Other countries, however, are taking more aggressive action.
But the internet is an international system, and differing rules on net neutrality will make it difficult for ISPs and content providers alike to operate across borders. As a result, the world will probably need to come to an agreement on net neutrality at some point, but that may only happen after a lot of ugly regulatory fights across the globe.