Is Net Neutrality Good for Gaming?

The FCC has been working since last fall to establish "net neutrality" guidelines. In a nutshell, net neutrality means that all service providers must allow nondiscriminatory access to all lawful content and must consent to all re

asonable requests regarding the disclosure of service management information to ensure that all customers receive equal broadband access.

These new guidelines follow four key freedoms established by the FCC in 2005:

1. Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

2. Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.

3. Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.

4. Consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice (subject to the needs of law enforcement.)

Nowhere in any of this are video games mentioned -- but net neutrality does have an impact on online games. Leveling the Internet playing field might have serious consequences for online latency; but at the same time, demanding transparency from all ISPs protects developers from getting slapped with unfair fees.

Here's how the debate breaks down on both sides:

Why Support Net Neutrality

Last week a coalition of game developers met with FCC representatives to show their support for net neutrality guidelines and urge the FCC to prevent ISPs like Comcast from segregating the Internet based on a multi-tiered broadband price plan. The developers (among them Christopher Dyl of Turbine, who worked on Lord of the Rings Online) asserted that all modern multiplayer games have been developed for the current Internet infrastructure, and that "balkanizing" the network based on ISP preference would be "a substantial drag on innovation because it would divert resources from development" of future titles.

"All we want is transparency and protection against discrimination; if you're making or playing a game, you want to know what kind of data your ISP will block and why

internet network neutrality
Illustration: Jeffrey Pelo
," says Dan Scherlis, former CEO of Turbine and producer of Asheron's Call. Speaking to GamePro, Scherlis pointed out that "without net neutrality guidelines your ISP is free to shake down developers with access fees, stalling innovation and pushing smaller games out of the market entirely."

Scherlis and other advocates of FCC regulation are encouraging gamers to support net neutrality out of a very real fear that your ISP may begin limiting access to select websites or imposing bandwidth caps in the near future. Multi-tiered service packages (in which a provider like Time Warner might offer preferential access to Internet services and increased bandwidth caps in return for higher fees) are a very real possibility without federal oversight, leading to a possible future where an ISP charging extra for the ability to play games online is just as acceptable as Microsoft charging for an Xbox Live Gold Account is today.

Without established net neutrality guidelines we also risk fragmenting the online gaming market; if service providers are free to throttle bandwidth we may soon see an Internet segregated by competing telecommunications companies. Allowing the FCC to enforce Scherlis' twin standards of transparency and equal access would prevent platform exclusivity deals like those made by Microsoft and Sony from erupting between Internet service providers like Comcast and Time Warner.

Why Not Support Net Neutrality

Supporting net neutrality may seem like the obvious choice for consumers interested in open access to the Internet without fear of regulatory oversight; by deputizing the FCC to enforce a free and open Internet, consumers protect themselves from exploitation with blanket provisions against censorship. But consider that putting the FCC in charge of how ISPs do business implicitly condones Internet regulation by expressly permitting a government regulatory body to punish companies offering preferential service.

"The Internet landscape will look radically different in ten or twenty years, and we'll be stuck beneath the same regulations the FCC is currently creating," says Ryan Radia, Associate Director of Technology Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Radia told GamePro that "99 percent of Internet customers have never and will never suffer discriminatory treatment; allowing for mistakes to be made encourages innovation by helping Internet providers understand what the market is capable of."

Radia is referring to mistakes like Comcast's attempts to throttle "excessive traffic" by blocking BitTorrent data transfers without informing customers. In 2008 the FCC decided 3-2 that such throttling was illegal, slapping Comcast with the first cease-and-desist order ever issued based on net neutrality guidelines.

Such active federal oversight is precisely what the detractors of net neutrality fear, because giving the FCC jurisdiction over what is and is not fair use of the Internet may lead to more stringent regulation in the future. Most net neutrality proposals expressly forbid service providers from prioritizing data traffic based on content. "The best way to guarantee equal quality of service is to ensure providers have no incentive to keep their general service inferior," says Scherlis. "Without federal oversight, service providers might intentionally degrade or throttle data traffic to encourage customers to upgrade their service plan."

Thankfully the data traffic generated by online gaming (whether on XBox Live, PSN, Steam or any other service) is comparatively sparse next to heavy lifters like BitTorrent downloads or streaming video; gamers only need to exchange the most basic information between client and server to ensure that all players have an accurate play experience. Unfortunately, the fast-paced nature of online gaming renders even a momentary traffic disruption or data loss blatantly obvious to a player.

"I'm a pretty hardcore gamer, and when I score a headshot I expect it to count," says Radia. "Barring ISPs from offering prioritized traffic means more delays, and gamers notice congestion much more readily than the average consumer. In the absence of net neutrality guidelines, service providers are free to experiment with competitive service plans that minimize game lag."

This spectre of game-breaking lag haunts every multiplayer experience, and developers have spent the last ten years creating multiplayer games that mitigate or eliminate data loss on an unregulated Internet. If net neutrality legislation passes and the FCC begins preventing your ISP from prioritizing select data traffic, lag may become a serious problem as gaming traffic gets pushed to the back of the bus (figuratively speaking) to make way for bandwidth hogs like BitTorrent.

Many financial conservatives and free market advocates are opposed to net neutrality laws because they interfere with the ability of a free market to self-regulate; in the absence of government oversight the invisible hand of the market will slap down ISPs who treat their customers poorly (with censorship, traffic throttling or excessive fees.) By allowing the FCC to regulate the Internet, many fear we may be eliminating a minor inconvenience today in exchange for significant government censorship in the future.

"We should be concerned when a regulatory body attempts to expand its power, no matter the reason," says Radia. "The FCC is staffed by bureaucrats and not elected officials; it means gamers are totally unable to hold the FCC accountable for its actions, and that's a terrifying thought."

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