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February 25, 2014

Why developers should care about Net Neutrality

By shutterstock_84312832

Last month a federal appeals court ruled that the FCC did not have the authority to enforce rules created in 2010 that ensure service providers can’t discriminate against any legal web site or online content. The flip side of this rule is that they also can’t play favorites in return for buckets of money from content and web providers. These rules, referred to as the “Open Internet” rules were intended to be an effort to keep the Internet a level playing ground for innovation but internet service providers like Verizon felt these rules unfairly kept them from making money from their own products. So Verizon sued, and in this case won… sort of.

While the Federal Court ruled that the FCC couldn’t enforce those specific rules, it did make it clear that the FCC does have some level of authority over the Internet. It does seem ironic that the same government agency that lost their collective minds when Janet Jackson suffered her “wardrobe malfunction” was now fighting to make sure that you can stream content of any nature without bias on the Internet. Rather than appeal this ruling however, the FCC is going back to the drawing board to draft new legislation with hopes of keeping access consistent across the internet.

Perhaps you’re asking yourself why you should care? Consider what would have happened in 2004 if Facebook access was intentionally limited by Verizon because they had struck a partnership agreement with MySpace that limited access to social network sites? Or if Microsoft had paid providers to give faster broadband speeds from Windows based machines and intentionally slowed down Macs? Startups like WhatsApp which recently sold to Facebook for $16 billion could be in even more trouble as they try to challenge the ISPs on their own turf with SMS and VOIP services. The possibilities are endlessly horrific and none bode well for the developers who want a level playing field for their new idea.

Think these things won’t happen? With the ink on the ruling still drying, Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer claimed that Comcast, Verizon, and Time Warner are throttling access from their subscribers to Netflix servers. In the past month leading up to the ruling, performance on Verizon FIOS has dropped 14%. And just a couple days ago, it was announced that Netflix has reached an agreement with Comcast to provide direct access from their customers to Netflix servers in return for an undisclosed sum of money.

It would appear that what will happen next is a mad scramble for content providers like YouTube, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc. to align themselves with ISPs to make sure their products aren’t choked off from consumers. The ISPs will be in a position to demand huge payments for bandwidth, and they’ll get them. And the FCC will be tied up in courts for years before any meaningful regulation can take hold. And during all of this, lost in this corporate game of musical ISPs will be the startup developer with a good idea for making content streaming easier, better, or cheaper but who won’t be able to unseat the incumbents’ network deals and get his product to consumers at the same speeds. At least not in the United States.

In Europe, however, Net Neutrality laws have started to gain a footing with the European Commission, adopting proposals for new laws that provide some basic protection for consumers from commercial collusion. Shortly after the U.S. ruling, Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for Digital Economy tweeted this:

“Watching US news. Maybe I shd invite newly disadvantaged US startups to EU, so they have a fair chance.”

What do you think this means for developers and startups? Is this just business as usual or are we at the precipice of an internet of commercial and state based walled gardens? Hit the comment link and let us know what you think!

About the Author

is a Chief Architect specializing in large scale distributed system development and enterprise software processes. Paul has more than twenty years of development experience including being a former Microsoft MVP, a speaker at technical conferences such as Microsoft Tech-Ed and VSLive, and a published author. Prior to working on the Windows platform, he built software using a vast array of technologies including Java, Unix, C, and even OS/2.