September 10th, 2014

granada holmes

the great internet slow-down

So, today is apparently Internet Slowdown Day, a protest on several sites against Net Neutrality laws some cable companies are pushing. Here's a decent overview both of the protest and the technical issues involved with the whole net neutrality debate, but the gist of it is that the sites participating are putting a GIF of spinning bars like you see while a site is loading. They're not actually slowing down the sites themselves, but are trying to raise awareness and show people what the internet would look like without Net Neutrality.

For anyone who's not been following along, net neutrality is essentially the idea that all websites should load at the same pace. Some internet providers want to charge certain websites a fee for access to a "fast lane" where their site will have its data transmitted more quickly. The fear --and it's a reasonable one IMO-- is it won't be the same rate for everyone and even faster speeds for people who pay the top-up, it will be faster rates for people who pay and lower rates for people who don't pay. That has the potential to crowd out smaller sites who can't afford the fees. John Oliver has a really good take-down [video] of the proposed changes -- hardly unbiased, but funny and a good way of wrapping your head around why net neutrality advocates are so concerned.

I know a lot of people online are very concerned about net neutrality. It's almost become dogmatic in certain circles -- express any concern that perhaps things aren't so dire as they seem or even ask questions because you don't understand the issues and it can come across as a strangely personal affront. I'm not saying everyone concerned about net neutrality is like that, there really are good reasons to be concerned, but there are enough people like that that I've come across that it activates my own heel-digging-in tendencies. Which means I tend to be almost hyper-aware to any hyperbole or us-versus-them style thinking (as I see it), but at the same time I do think there's reason to be concerned, and probably even protest.

Which makes things like the Slow-down Day very interesting because I get to try to work out whether I think the protest is a good one, whether my perception is an accurate one, all of that.

First, my basic position. I come from the basic place that the internet (and perhaps more importantly, what people use the internet for) has changed quite a bit over the years. Specifically, there are some people who use the internet in high-content ways, much moreso than other people, and they tend to use certain sites. I'm thinking of gamers who often play online rather than games native to their system, streaming video sites like Amazon and Netflix, and graphic-heavy sites like Tumblr and wherever people share photos these days. I'm assuming PhotoBucket has gone the way of MySpace. And you have all these sites that are built on the assumption that people will have access to what they offer. Netflix's business model built on the assumption that people will be able to stream large quantities of data at fast speeds - faster speeds than (say) folks who get their entertainment from actual televisions would require. It's not wholly unreasonable to charge different internet users different amounts to provide different levels of service. Typically, you're charged a flat rate for a certain speed, but there's no limit to the amount of data you can stream, just how quickly it will get there. I also don't think it's that unreasonable to tell a certain site that they're hogging the resources available and that the company is going to prioritize people and sites who are less heavy users unless the company helps offset some of the cost their service imposes.

On the flip side, though, it does seem as if the telecommunications companies are doing, as John Oliver put it, something that looks pretty much like a mob shakedown. I'm not against different speed lanes in principle, but the way Comcast and Verizon are approaching this in practice looks seriously, seriously uncool. You see this in the negotiation between Verizon and Netflix they discussed: Netflix and Verizon were in negotiations, and Netflix's delivery speed on Verizon networks took a nosedive right until they agreed to Verizon's terms. At some level, though, that almost feels like big companies playing hardball. It's hardly Verizon's finest hour, but it's also not exactly the stuff they write folk songs about.

What really concerns me, and what I think concerns quite a few people, is the impact on smaller sites who couldn't afford the cost of the "fast lane." Which is what interests me so much about today's protest. From where I'm standing, it's not wholly unreasonable that a site offering video-streaming like Netflix should have to pay a higher price than a text-heavy site like Twitter. Of course that's not what's going on here (it's more a matter of major sites with something to lose being forced to pay because they can), but what really concerns me is whether the next Netflix that does things a little better, or provides less homogenized content or whatever, can't get off the ground because of the speed difference. The Amazons of the world will survive this, but the independent bookstores or the smaller online sellers might not. That is a perfectly valid concern in my opinion. The thing is, the focus on the coverage of the protest that I've seen has been on those mega-sites. And at some level that makes sense and I'm not sorry for the publicity, but somehow that strikes me as off. If it was smaller sites going offline for some time window and saying "we would not be here at all if the proposed rules had been in effect when we were trying to get off the ground."

So... I don't know. It's not that I'm opposed to the protest, it's not that I'm blind to the issue or anything. But I think when our focus is that Tumblr will have to pay more fees rather than "that new start-up that combines the best elements of Tumblr with better user controls and a functional commenting system won't exist at all," something seems off to me.