Who Will Kill Net Neutrality?

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When [cellular] subscribers sign up for service, they want their network to move data -- not to choose which companies are wealthy enough to buy access to subscribers. Without vital net neutrality protections, companies with commercial incentive to limit the free-flowing Web, like T-Mobile, Verizon and Comcast, can decide who will have a voice online. These companies should not have the power to determine anyone's fate on the Internet." -- Joel Kelsey, Political Adviser, Free Press

Nicely put: Who will have a voice online is, indeed, the core issue.

What prompted Kelsey's comments was the recent announcement that T-Mobile was stepping definitively away from net neutrality (the idea that carriers should not be allowed to shape data traffic for their own commercial ends) and planning to make the likes of Google and Apple "pay to play" when it comes to video traffic.

If T-Mobile has its way, Google, Apple and probably every other company with the kind of consumer success that generates significant traffic will be sent a bill. The result will be no pay, no play. Should T-Mobile get away with this, then it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that every other cellular carrier will follow suit.

What T-Mobile and the other carriers who provide Internet data services (both wired and cellular) are missing is that these video services are "pulled" by the consumer, not "pushed" by the likes of YouTube. This means it is a choice by the consumer.

Now, call me crazy but it seems to me that any attempt to control what users can and cannot see, even if it is by just by limiting performance, has to be squarely in the territory of censorship and we can pretty much guess how this will play out. First it will be argued that this is just for video and it's for the good of the network, then certain types of content, both video and Web, will get blocked for political or outright commercial reasons, and then, step by step, our rights will be eroded until we're all paying way more but only for what the powers-that-be allow us to see.

How the FCC can still move on net neutrality

Here's the big thing: It seems to me that any such move by T-Mobile would have to violate the agreed terms of service and require a revised agreement. The obvious consumer move should be to take that as an opportunity to switch carriers without incurring any kind of early termination fee.

The same situation applies to Verizon's mooted termination of its unlimited data plan and AT&T's recent termination of its similar plan: Given that these are material and significant changes to the contract, users should be able to say "so long" without having to cough up ETFs.

But wait! It looks like all of the major carriers are doing the same thing, so other than leaving a carrier you don't like for one you might like, you'll still be losing out. Isn't that market fixing?

Even if the carriers aren't explicitly agreeing to all do the same thing, the fact that they are, actually, all doing the same thing that isn't in the consumer's interest should raise all sorts of red flags.

The problem is that consumers are addicted to their comms. They are all hooked on their iPhones, their Droids and their BlackBerrys. So, for example, will iPhone users leave AT&T because the company is changing the deal? Nope, they won't. And thus, the heart of the battle for net neutrality could be lost because consumers have become comms junkies.

Gibbs, in Ventura, Calif., has a 12-step program for comms addiction. Sign up backspin@gibbs.com.

Read more about lans & wans in Network World's LANs & WANs section.

This story, "Who Will Kill Net Neutrality?" was originally published by Network World.

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