Richard Yo, MJLST Staffer
Up to a certain point, ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T enjoy healthy, mutually beneficial relationships with web content companies such as Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon. That relationship remains so even when regular internet usage moves beyond emails and webpage browsing to VoIP and video streaming. To consume data-heavy content, users seek the wider bandwidth of broadband service and ISPs are more than happy to provide it at a premium. However, once one side enters the foray of the other, the relationship becomes less tenable unless it is restructured or improved upon. This problem is worse when both sides attempt to mimic the other.
Such a tension had clearly arisen by the time Verizon v. FCC 740 F.3d 623 (D.C. Cir. 2014) was decided. The D.C. Circuit vacated, or rather clarified, the applicability of two of the three rules that constituted the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order. The D.C. Circuit clarified that the rule of transparency was applicable to all, but the restrictions on blocking and discrimination were applicable only to common carriers. The FCC had previously classified ISPs under Title I of the Communications Act; common carriers are classified under Title II. The 2014 decision confirmed that broadband companies, not being common carriers, could choose the internet speed of websites and web-services at their discretion so long as they were transparent. So, to say that the internet’s astounding growth and development is due to light touch regulation is disingenuous. That statement in and of itself is true. Such discriminatory and blocking behavior was not in the purview of broadband providers during the early days of the internet due to the aforementioned relationship.
Once web content began taking on the familiar forms of broadcast television, signs of throttling were evident. Netflix began original programming in 2013 and saw its streaming speeds drop dramatically that year on both Verizon and Comcast networks. In 2014, Netflix made separate peering-interconnection agreements with both companies to secure reliably fast speeds for itself. Soon, public outcry led to the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order reclassifying broadband internet service as a “telecommunications service” subject to Title II. ISPs were now common carriers and net neutrality was in play, at least briefly (2015-2018).
Due to the FCC’s 2018 Restoring Internet Freedom Order, much of the features of the 2015 order have been reversed. Some now fear that ISPs will again attempt to control the traffic on their networks in all sorts of insidious ways. This is a legitimate concern but not one that necessarily spans the entire spectrum of the internet.
The internet has largely gone unregulated thanks to legislation and policies meant to encourage innovation and discourse. Under this incubatory setting, numerous such advancements and developments have indeed been made. One quasi-advancement is the streaming of voice and video. The internet has gone from cat videos to award-winning dramas. What began as a supplement to mainstream entertainment has now become the dominant force. Instead of Holly Hunter rushing across a busy TV station, we have Philip DeFranco booting up his iMac. Our tastes have changed, and with it, the production involved.
There is an imbalance here. Broadcast television has always suffered the misgivings of the FCC, even more than its cable brethren. The pragmatic reason for this has always been broadcast television’s availability, or rather its unavoidability. Censors saw to it that obscenities would never come across a child’s view, even inadvertently. But it cannot be denied that the internet is vastly more ubiquitous. Laptop, tablet, and smartphone sales outnumber those of televisions. Even TVs are now ‘smart,’ serving not only their first master but a second web master as well (no pun intended). Shows like Community and Arrested Development were network television shows (on NBC and FOX, respectively) one minute, and web content (on Yahoo! and Netflix, respectively) the next. The form and function of these programs had not substantially changed but they were suddenly free of the FCC’s reign. Virtually identical productions on different platforms are regulated differently, all due to arguments anchored by fears of stagnation.