Imagine a world where America’s interstate highway and local road systems work a bit differently than it does today. They look the same, but the governing bodies that oversee our nation’s highways have cut deals with certain car makers. If you own a Toyota, Honda, Mercedes, Kia or Hyundai, you’re free to travel the highways whenever you like. If you own a car from any other brand you can still travel from state to state, but you’ll have to stick only to smaller roads and side streets.
Would you ever consider buying a car made by a company other than the five listed above? Would new startups like Tesla even bother trying to enter the market?
Sure, car companies can negotiate with governments in each and every one of the 48 contiguous states, but what happens if some states won’t play ball? And what happens if an entrepreneur with a brilliant idea for a new type of car doesn’t have the time or resources to negotiate with all 48 states?
This scenario would be devastating to Americans. It would stunt progress in the car industry at best, and outright prevent it at worst. It would be a burden for car makers, and it would be a burden for car owners with brands that are not allowed on highways. It would prevent a truly level playing field from ever existing.
As outlandish as that sounds, it’s happening right now before our eyes.
Comcast and T-Mobile both currently offer broadband plans with capped data. And as of this week, they both give preferential treatment to certain services by allowing subscribers with capped data plans to use these services without having that data apply toward their cap.
In Comcast’s case, this exception applies only to its own Internet TV service, Stream TV. Subscribers to that service can watch all the video they want without worrying that they might be nearing their monthly 300GB data cap.
That certainly makes Stream TV competitors less appealing to Comcast subscribers, doesn’t it?
T-Mobile’s “Binge On” program might be an even bigger slap to the face for net neutrality. Under this program, T-Mobile customers can stream video from the carrier’s own video service or any one of T-Mobile’s 23 additional partners without the associated data counting toward their caps.
Sure, other companies can approach T-Mobile and negotiate deals to be included on the carrier’s Binge On whitelist. Maybe T-Mobile offers great terms and is open to supporting dozens, hundreds or even thousands of other services. But what happens when every wireless carrier adopts the same model? Is Jane Q. Startup, founder a small bootstrapped streaming media company, supposed to approach every single carrier in the world, or even just every carrier in the U.S., and negotiate all those deals?
No. Her company is doomed to fail. In fact, she likely never would have founded it in the first place. And net neutrality exists in part to prevent innovation and progress from being stifled.
The worst part, perhaps, is that the FCC doesn’t think this violates the letter of the law or even the spirit of the law with regard to net neutrality. In fact, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler thinks Binge On is a good thing. “Its clear in the Open Internet Order that we said we are pro-competition and pro-innovation,” Wheeler told reporters just yesterday when asked about T-Mobile’s Binge On program, according to Ars Technica. “Clearly this meets both of those criteria. It’s highly innovative and highly competitive.”
And all of a sudden, he’s looking like the Wheeler of old again.
Net neutrality and the issues that surround it are not black and white, and too having much legislation can be as dangerous as not having enough legislation. But we still must endeavor to protect the open Internet, and this new crop of schemes like Binge On and Comcast’s new web TV plan do just the opposite, pushing us further toward a closed Internet that impedes innovation.