After months of feverish speculation, the FCC returned with new, weaker net-neutrality guidelines in late 2010. Emboldened by the Comcast decision, Verizon quickly filed suit to contest the FCC's authority. The prognosis for the FCC's watered-down net-neutrality guidelines are no better this time around. Tim Wu, the Columbia Law School professor who coined the term "net neutrality," told an audience at SXSW this year that the chances of the FCC winning its court battle with Verizon were perhaps 20 percent.
What happens if net neutrality fails? In his recent book The Master Switch, Wu argues that the consequences will be much the same as when corporations consolidated their control over radio, television, film, and cable: big telecom companies will exercise government-sponsored near-monopolies that subvert innovation and enrich the powerful, to the exclusion of independent thinkers, developers, and content creators.
This weekend, when dozens of net neutrality true-believers gather at the annual National Conference for Media Reform in Boston, they will be attempting to launch an awareness campaign — a last-ditch attempt to drive public opinion in what seems like a losing battle.
Let us state for the record: the Internet is not a series of tubes.
Explaining what it is, though — that's a little harder. Say Fenway Park is a PC. And let's say that Fenway wants to send its packets — 17,000 of them, human-sized — to Government Center. Say it sends them all at once — and let's pretend it's around 1 pm on the afternoon of the Boston Marathon. And they've all got to take the Green Line.
You've been there, of course: lines around the block, mobs of packets queued up to get through the turnstile. Now imagine the MBTA director is watching from a glass booth — and he's a closet Yankees fan. He decides to open up a special turnstile — in fact, he creates an entire lane, from Yawkey Way down Comm Ave, where Yankees fans can breeze through the turnstiles while the Red Sox fans wait. That Yankee-loving MBTA douchebag would be violating network neutrality. The goal of net neutrality is to make sure the guys who own the turnstiles don't make the rest of us wait in line.
Of course, the Internet is way more complicated than that. It's a big mesh, a patchwork quilt of bigger and smaller networks, of physical wires and cables, each with an owner. The networks all have to collaborate with each other and pass packets from place to place. Rather than charge each other, most of those networks strike peering agreements, exchanging traffic for free.
When the balance of power breaks down — when network A needs network B more than B needs A — there's transit agreements: a form of legalized extortion where the bigger network charges the smaller network to use his wires. (Consumers never see those charges; they're rolled into your monthly fees. But AT&T is ending the era of unlimited Internet; next month, the company will begin putting a cap on broadband usage and charging extra for anyone who goes over the limit. Stream Netflix video over the Internet, and it'll count toward your cap; stream AT&T's "U-Verse" programming and it won't. You can do shit like that when you own the turnstile.)