Think of all the things that tick you off about cable TV. Along with brainless programming and crummy customer service, the very worst aspect of it is forced bundling. You can't pay just for the couple of dozen channels you actually watch. Instead, you have to pay for a couple of hundred channels, because the good stuff is scattered among a number of overstuffed packages.
Now, imagine that the Internet worked that way. You'd hate it, of course. But that's the direction that Verizon, with the support of many wired and wireless carriers, would like to push the Web. That's not hypothetical. The country's No. 1 carrier is fighting in court to end the Federal Communications Commission's policy of Net neutrality, a move that would open the gates to a whole new -- and wholly bad -- economic model on the Web.
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As it stands now, you pay your Internet service provider and go wherever you want on the Web. Packets of bits are just packets and have to be treated equally. That's the essence of Net neutrality. But Verizon's plan, which the company has outlined during hearings in federal court and before Congress, would change that. Verizon and its allies would like to charge websites that carry popular content for the privilege of moving their packets to your connected device. Again, that's not hypothetical.
ESPN, for example, is in negotiations with at least one major cellular carrier to pay to exempt its content from subscribers' cellular data caps. And what's wrong with that? Well, ESPN is big and rich and can pay for that exemption, but other content providers -- think of your local jazz station that streams audio -- couldn't afford it and would be out of business. Or, they'd make you pay to visit their websites. Indeed, if that system had been in place 10 years ago, fledglings like Google or YouTube or Facebook might never have gotten out of the nest.
Susan Crawford, a tech policy expert and professor at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, says Verizon wants to "cable-ize the Internet." She writes in her blog that "The question presented by the case is: Does the U.S. government have any role in ensuring ubiquitous, open, world-class, interconnected, reasonably priced Internet access?"
Verizon: the new Standard Oil
Verizon and other carriers answer that question by saying no.
They argue that because they spent megabucks to build and maintain the network, they should be able to have a say over what content travels over it. They say that because Google and Facebook and other Internet companies make money by moving traffic over "their" networks, they should get a bigger piece of the action. (Never mind that pretty much every person and business that accesses Google or Facebook is already paying for the privilege, and paying more while getting less speed than users in most of Europe.)
In 2005, AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre famously remarked that upstarts like Google would like to "use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it."
That's bad enough, but Verizon goes even further. It claims that it has a right to free speech and, like a newspaper that may or may not publish a story about something, it can choose which content it chooses to carry. "Broadband providers possess 'editorial discretion.' Just as a newspaper is entitled to decide which content to publish and where, broadband providers may feature some content over others," Verizon's lawyers argue in a brief (PDF).