Friday, December 03, 2010

Netflix's Survival Depends on Net Neutrality...

Netflix has been on fire lately, and a main reason why is its online streaming video service (which, in full disclosure, I absolutely love).

Thus, it came as quite a shock to many people earlier this week when the New York Times reported how Netflix was almost shut down. Comcast, one of the nation's largest Internet Service Providers (ISPs), decided to charge a new fee for companies that stream video at high bandwidth levels. This new fee puts online video companies like Netflix at a competitive disadvantage versus subscription-based Cable Television providers like Comcast.

To make this clear, the problem is that, since Comcast controls people's internet access and also makes the bulk of its money providing Cable TV service, it is in a position to limit how well online video is going to work, thereby privileging its own service at the expense of its rivals.

The F.C.C. is now investigating whether or not this is a fair business practice. Meanwhile, a petition has been circulating to "Stop Comcast from Blocking Netflix" that quickly was signed by over 100,000 people and will soon be submitted to the F.C.C. Chairman.

This story is why technologists have been screaming for years about the urgent need for Net Neutrality. ISPs like Comcast shouldn't have the power to determine which websites will work better than others, and which websites people will have access to at all. Let the marketplace decide! The cyberspace we all know and love has been defined from the beginning as a place where anybody could launch a website with almost no barriers to entry in the marketplace, and it would either succeed or fail depending on the merits of the site. That's Net Neutrality.

Comcast and other large ISPs have recently become more brazen in trying to shape our online experiences. They have tried to prohibit certain protocols, like BitTorrent, from being used by their customers - despite many such protocols having valid and legal uses. Now they want to charge an enormous fee to online video services like Netflix so that their core Cable TV business will be artificially cheaper. If they succeed, not only will the Netflix's of the world be crippled, but any wannabe new startup company will be run out of business by exorbitant fees before they ever launch. Google and Facebook never would have had a chance in their early days in such an environment.

Net Neutrality is the way things have been in the past, and that state of being has fostered tremendous innovation and free enterprise. Because companies like Comcast are trying to alter the playing field, erecting "internet toll-booths" to privilege some sites over others, there has arisen an actual need for legislation that guarantees Net Neutrality. That's a shame, but it's their own greed that's driving the F.C.C., hopefully, in that direction.


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