Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Netflix rates are on the rise - more proof you should be concerned about Net Neutrality?

If my Facebook and Twitter feeds are any indication, people everywhere are mad about the new rate structure at Netflix. Real mad. Like, agrarian revolt mad. I'm half expecting an angry mob with pitchforks and little red envelopes to start gathering outside City Hall any minute.

The anger at Netflix took me back to November, when a smaller number of tech-nerds raised a small outcry about a move by Comcast against Netflix and partner company Level 3. As Tony Bradley summarized it at PC World:
Comcast--which has its own on-demand streaming content and pay-per-view movies--demanded a recurring fee in exchange for allowing Netflix streaming media content to flow unfettered through its network. The fee--which Netflix backend provider Level 3 Communications agreed to pay to avoid service interruptions for Netflix customers--feels a lot like extortion a' la paying mob "protection money" to avoid "bad things" happening to your business.
The story made very small ripples, mostly among the tech blogs and we civil liberties wonks, but there was no great public outcry. Until now. This is not to say that Comcast's "extortion" is the only cause behind a rate increase at Netflix - there are other factors, including demands for a larger piece of the action from the movie and TV studios who produce content, and of course Netflix's own profit motive - but a 60% sock in the wallet to Netflix customers should serve as a reminder of something the ACLU has long been urging: the dire need for strong net neutrality rules.

As the Internet has become a critical part of our daily lives, we users have taken for granted that we are all experiencing the same Internet - but we are trusting private corporations, in most cases, to bring us that content. Like prison guards sorting our mail, those corporations have absolute power over what data reaches us, how fast, and at what cost. Until recently, the motive to filter user data was not strong enough to justify the cost - but with online delivery of music, movies, and television developing into a multi-billion dollar industry, the motive is there. The question is, do they have the right?

Net neutrality laws and policies are murky at best, full of loopholes and largely written by lobbyists from the same companies they are meant to regulate. Major telecom corporations, including Comcast as well as AT&T, Time Warner, and others, have invested heavily into opposing strong net neutrality rules. The ACLU is a strong proponent of net neutrality, as are groups including the Electronic Freedom Foundation, Free Press, and others.

Our concern is less with the price of streaming movies and television shows, and more with the other ways in which companies might restrict or filter Internet traffic. If Comcast can selectively filter Netflix, what's to say they wouldn't filter out individual expression? It's not unprecedented - in 2007, AT&T censored a live-streamed Pearl Jam performance, silencing Eddie Vedder's political statement against then-President George W. Bush. In 2005, Canadian telecom Telus blocked all of its users from accessing the web site of a union that was on strike against Telus. 

Net neutrality has always proven an issue difficult to communicate. I've tried to explain it to people, and it usually takes a few seconds before their eyes glaze over. It's not a threat that seems real to most of us. We, the first generation of Internet users, have grown up in the electronic version of the wild west, and we've taken it for granted. Even Daily Show resident expert John Hodgman has a difficult time articulating the issue:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Net Neutrality Act
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The folks on my Facebook and Twitter feeds are mostly angry at Netflix, and rumors are flying of a mass customer exodus. Whether that will happen remains to be seen, but if it does it plays right into Comcast's wishes - those customers aren't going to ditch their ISP. Maybe instead they'll upgrade their cable package, and get their streaming content from the same company who brings the Internet into their home.
Maybe, though, some of them will see the $6 a month for what it is: one of the early bricks in the wall that's being constructed between customers and the free and open Internet.

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