US internet set for Cable TV-like inequality

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

April 30, 2014

The notion of net neutrality, the idea that all internet traffic should be treated equally, and which has been a cornerstone in the success of the internet, is looking increasingly like a dead duck in the United States.

When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit effectively struck down net neutrality over a technicality in January, it was widely believed that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would reassert its control, and maintain net neutrality by redefining ‘common carriers’ to include broadband providers (the case rested on the fact that  the 2010 FCC Open Internet Order applies to ‘common carriers’ such as regular telecoms companies, and the ruling decided that the  term does not apply to broadband providers).

This appears not to be the case however, and last Wednesday the FCC proposed new rules that would achieve the exact opposite, allowing companies such as Disney, Google or Netflix to pay internet backbone providers for preferential treatment, allowing their content to be delivered faster to their customers.

This will in effect create a two (or more) tiered internet, which is terrible news for US consumers, and lays the groundwork for even greater domination of content distribution by a few wealthy and powerful megacorporations, while smaller ‘indie’, homegrown, start-up, charity, and the other small-scale content which has so far been a driving force and source of innovation on the internet, will wither and die in the slow lane (or be excluded altogether). The only winners here are (as usual) big businesses.

To use the analogy in the title of this article, companies such as Comcast and Version who now serve up tailored packages, delivering only a selection of handpicked programs to their customers, will now be able to do the same thing for the internet.

The main argument used to justify charging content providers such as Netflix and Disney for extra speeds is that they are responsible for large amounts of the internet’s traffic (it is claimed that Netflix is responsible for over 30 percent of peak internet traffic), and that currently the ISPs have to build and support the infrastructure needed to cope with this traffic. So it’s only fair that Netflix and co.  pay their way, right?

Well, as I ague in more detail in this article; isn’t this is why customers are paying for fast broadband subscriptions in the first place? It sure as hell is not so they can access their emails faster. In fact Comcast and the ISPs have it all backwards, and it is demand for services such as Netflix that is fueling demand for fast broadband packages from the likes of Comcast in the first place!

Fortunately governments elsewhere are heading in the opposite direction, and both Europe and Brazil have passed robust legislation aimed at ensuring net neutrality. The rest of the world should not be complacent however, as the United States is still hugely influential, and if enacted these proposals will set a very worrying precedent. Moreover, a very large volume of global internet traffic passes through the United States, and would presumably also find itself ‘managed’ by US ISPs (in addition to spied on by the NSA).

The FCC’s proposals are at present just that, but the mere fact that this is the direction they seem to be moving in is deeply worrying. If you feel like doing something about it, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian has launched a new crowdfunded project aimed campaigning against the proposals by pacing a ‘billboard in FCC’s Backyard


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