Both Netflix and Amazon will deliberately slow down their services on Wednesday, July 12, 2017, in protest of the FCC's proposal to reverse its net neutrality rules.
The internet age has revolutionized how individuals consume content. It has never been easier for humans to communicate with, and learn from, one another. Gone are the days when vast libraries were required to store human knowledge. Today, the entirety of humanity's collective knowledge is accessible with a few clicks of the mouse. In many ways, this has been made possible by the principles of net neutrality
There is nothing particularly sexy about net neutrality. It is the concept that when you go onto the internet and try to read an article or watch a video, your internet service provider (ISP) should have to give that content to you as fast as possible under the terms of your internet package.
The internet is a network of billions of interconnected computers. When you click on a link on a website, for example, you are sending a message to a computer or server somewhere in the world and asking for access to that information. Your digital request moves at the speed of light across thousands of miles of fiberoptic wiring and at the speed of sound through the air, pinging off nearby cellular towers. When the message is received by the host server, the information you requested is sent back to you along the same path.
If you look at the journey this information takes, very little is actually controlled by your internet service provider. The cabling and cellular towers controlled by your ISP comprise what is known as the "last mile," a bottleneck separating your device from the World Wide Web. Since the internet's inception, whenever you have clicked a link, you have been allowed to access that content. ISPs have been prohibited from restricting or throttling data transfers along this "last mile." After all, you pay for internet access. In recent years, however, ISPs have fought to change this.
ISPs like Comcast want the authority to block or throttle (slow down) access to specific internet content. No, we're not talking about internet content that is illegal. These internet companies want to prevent you from freely using their competitors' services.
Take the issue of video streaming as an example. Comcast owns NBC Universal, which owns a percentage of the Hulu video streaming service. Comcast and its subsidiaries earn a percentage of revenue when you watch a commercial or click on an ad on a Hulu video. But if you instead choose to subscribe to Netflix or Amazon Prime, Comcast loses out on that ad revenue. Additionally, because video streaming requires a lot of bandwidth, Comcast actually loses a small amount of money when their customers continuously download these large video files. The solution for Comcast is simple: throttle users' access to Netflix and Amazon to the point where it becomes unbearable and users have no choice but to subscribe to Comcast's own lightning-fast, ultra high-definition (UHD) Hulu service. If someone was insistent on using Netflix, Comcast would then be able to charge an additional fee for high speed access to UHD or HD content.
In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission passed regulations reclassifying broadband internet as a public utility under Title II. Because the federal government has helped pay to build the broadband networks, the FCC determined that ISPs had no right to throttle or block access to competitors' sites, even for information traveling across the "last mile." Because of these regulations, Comcast and other internet providers are not allowed to throttle your access or charge "tolls" to access certain content.
With the election of a new President, party control over the FCC has shifted. Today, the same FCC commissioners who fought against net neutrality have the power to roll it back. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has criticized the FCC's regulations, arguing that the previous administration used an "old regulatory framework" to "impose a set of heavy-handed regulations upon the internet." He has promised to roll back these net neutrality protections.
Protesting this proposed deregulation, both Netflix and Amazon will be throttling users on Wednesday. While it is unclear how they plan to do this, they will likely slow down the loading speeds for streamed videos and change the website design to call attention to the risks of losing net neutrality protections. Other companies have since announced plans to stage pro-net neutrality protests as well.
The action is interesting. Internet companies typically don't intentionally slow down their services, especially for paying customers. However, both Netflix and Amazon believe that it is necessary to call attention to an issue that affects all Americans but remains hidden under the surface.
While this issue of net neutrality might not be a topic of dinner conversation in most households, it is one deserving of more discussion.
You are able to read this now because you saw a link that interested you, clicked on it, and were brought to this article. Without net neutrality, that is not guaranteed. If internet service providers don't like the content you are trying to access, or would prefer that you read an article or watch a video on a website they own and control, they can throttle, block, redirect you to another page, or even charge you a premium fee for access.
The internet has always been about freedom. Giving internet service providers the authority to mess with how users access content online is beyond dangerous to both content creators and consumers alike.