In WIRED this morning, Sam Altman published a broadside against the new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, and his plans to greenlight internet service providers creating fast lanes or slow lanes. The president of elite startup accelerator Y Combinator called on tech companies to sign on to a letter people at his company wrote in collaboration with those at its fellow accelerator, Techstars, and Engine, a non-profit that advocates for Startups.
“The promise of the internet is that it gives everyone the power to compete and grow their ideas into businesses or products available to anyone,” Altman writes. More than 1,000 companies have already signed the letter, according to Altman’s post.
In 2015, the FCC passed a new rule that reclassified broadband providers as common carriers, making them more like a utility. This meant that all traffic on the internet was equal (in other words, neutral—thus, “net neutrality”). ISPs were not allowed to provide faster service to some traffic and slower service to others.
For example, Netflix is one of the biggest companies online. Without net neutrality, the company could be persuaded to pay a special access fee to ISPs around the country so that it’s movies and shows would load faster than other streaming services. The internet is becoming rife with new Netflix competitors, such as Seeso for comedy or Shudder for horror. What chance would those companies have if they couldn’t afford to pay ISPs’ tolls to enter the fast lane?
“I’m concerned that the cable and wireless companies that control internet access will have outsized power to pick winners and losers in the market,” Altman writes.
Altman makes three big points in his letter:
- Cable and telephone companies have already shown they are willing to manipulate traffic to protect their core businesses. In the 2000s, ISPs blocked or slowed both voice-over-internet sites and file sharing services. If startups had to worry about whether or not the communications industry would permit a service to have access to the open internet, it would have a chilling effect on innovation.
- Ending net neutrality could undermine building a better internet. Chairman Pai argues that by allowing ISPs to create fast lanes, it will give telecommunications giants the incentive to build a faster internet, but Altman argues that isn’t necessarily true. If what telcos want is more revenue, they could simply throttle companies that don’t pay the fast lane toll and let companies that do pay enjoy the full speed of the existing internet. He writes:
“It’s certainly critical to remove barriers to the construction of new networks, but the existing net neutrality rules are not the problem here. Some of the biggest cable and wireless companies themselves have already said that the current legal framework hasn’t hurt them, and capital expenditures across the industry continue to rise.”
- Internet access should be a utility. He asks readers to imagine a world where electric companies charged consumers less for power provided to, for example, Samsung products, but more for power to appliances from any other company. That’s not how electricity works, and isn’t how access to the open internet should work, either.
Telcos really don’t want to become utilities and regulated as such, but that’s what Altman’s suggesting with his last point. It’s a subtle dig at an industry that really wants the right to optimize internet access for its own profits, not for public benefit.
As well argued as Altman’s points are, the overall reaction to what seems like the inevitable fall of the Title II ruling by the FCC seems to have been muted compared to the fight to win Net Neutrality rules and prior fights over rules for the web.
In 2012, Congress was moving forward with two bills aimed at undermining piracy of copyrighted material online, called SOPA and PIPA. The internet generally agreed the measures went too far and galvanized. On January 18, 2012, an estimated 115,000 websites, including Tumblr, Twitter and Reddit, blacked out their service for the day in protest, redirecting visitors to take action to let congress know they opposed the bill.
SOPA and PIPA were really fights over how content was used. Net Neutrality reaches into every aspect of the internet, from the Internet of Things to natural language processing.
Yet we’re still at the sign-on letter phase of action in this controversy. No one has yet proposed doing anything nearly so drastic as a blackout in light of the newest threat to America’s piece of the open internet.