Monday, September 8, 2014

"Go Slow" Day - Net Neutrality, We'll Miss When You're Gone

We've taken for granted that you can reach any site on the Internet with equal ease ("net neutrality"). That is about to change if the FCC (US Federal Communications Commission) has its way with proposed regulations that would eliminate net neutrality protections and allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to create "fast Internet lanes" for companies that are willing to pay. Of course, this implies the existence of slow lanes.

On September 10, 2014, many companies providing Internet services will stage a protest known as "Go Slow" Day, a day in which companies will simulate what Internet users could experience if the FCC regulations go into effect. The goal of Go Slow Day is to protest the proposed regulations and raise public awareness of what they really mean.

Without net neutrality, monopolistic ISPs such as Time Warner Cable (TWC) would decide which content gets seen by most people. Moreover, there is little to prevent the ISPs from favoring their own services or the services of their partner companies over competitors with privileged Internet access. For example, suppose TWC, which is the only provider of high speed Internet access in many parts of the USA, decided to offer a streaming video service. They could cause Netflix to run slower while their own service ran quickly. Customers would have little choice but to sign up for the TWC service, even if they liked Netflix offerings better. 

Another concern is that the big, established players (like Google or perhaps Netflix) could stifle competition and innovation. Suppose TWC initiated a fast Internet access fee, which only the big companies could afford. Startup companies, with little resources, would be at a severe disadvantage, effectively entrenching the current big players. 

Participating tech companies protesting the proposed FCC changes will install widgets on their sites displaying a revolving icon to symbolize how the Internet would function in a world without net neutrality. In effect, users will experience slow download times. 

This seems like an arcane issue, but as central as the Internet is to our lives, it has real practical relevance.

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