A Brief History of Net Neutrality's Decline and its Relevance to Gamers

By Published May 09, 2014 at 7:00 am
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Two things are going to be happening this year for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that will directly affect the internet and its present management. The first is the upcoming preliminary vote on the revamped rules of “net neutrality” on May 15th; the second has to do with the merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, which would give a 40% userbase share to an ISP that already has a history of throttling users and businesses.

Here we will give a quick (recent) history on net neutrality and the potential abuse that a merger of two of the largest ISPs could mean -- even to gamers -- if the current plans go through. We previously discussed the topic impacting gamers when AT&T applied for a patent to charge extra for peer-to-peer activity, which would effectively mean you'd be paying more money to download game patches and games. Whether or not piracy is involved, P2P activity is a commonality within the gaming world and serves as the backbone for the likes of all Blizzard games, which distribute content in P2P fashion.

Net neutrality is the underlying concept of the internet being open to everyone with minimal restrictions. For the user, this means being able to view the content they want in an unimpeded fashion (beyond impediments placed by the site owner, like journal subscriptions); this content can include streaming movies, using P2P networks, hosting and joining multiplayer games, or just browsing. For content creators, net neutrality rulings directly affect their ability to get content out to their user, be it a small entity like our website (where YouTube uploads go through an ISP) or a huge entity like Amazon or Netflix. Currently, the ISPs make money by charging both consumers and creators in relatively proportional amounts. The user pays to access the internet at a certain speed and the content creator pays the ISP for business-class upload bandwidth and speeds. Sounds simple, and honestly, it should be. The problem stems from the ISP trying to exploit higher profit from consumers (a thousand-percent profit margin isn't enough) and attempting to prevent the concept of an open internet by requiring bribes for content distribution from the site hosts.

The ISPs are lobbying to make it legal for them to not only restrict access that is already paid for twice, but to charge even more money for what ISPs consider high-usage items. It should not matter what is being used or how you it is accessed (within reasonable Federal / criminal law) once you've already paid for it. This simple principle has already been under attack repeatedly and has led to where we currently are.

A Quick History of US Net Neutrality and its Downfall

att-patent-1AT&T's patent that will use "tokens" (credits) for streamed or P2P content.

Back in 2007, Comcast had been throttling the speed of customers who were using peer-to-peer networking and, after a number of complaints to the FCC, the FCC ordered Comcast to stop this practice. Comcast decided to fight the ruling and it filed a lawsuit in 2010 that wound up going to the Supreme Court. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC was powerless to enforce their rules regarding fair internet usage, due to the law they were trying to leverage to justify their actions, and the Court sided with Comcast. This was the first challenge of the FCC's ability to regulate and control how ISPs did business.

This defeat forced the FCC to create a new rule attempting to force net neutrality, known as the FCC Open Internet Order 2010. Shortly after these went into effect, the FCC was challenged by Verizon and MetroPCS as it attempted to set rules on new technologies, like internet usage and mobile services. The case was finally decided January 14, 2014, once again against the FCC. This most recent defeat of the FCC has not only been a setback, but has inspired current FFC Chairman Tom Wheeler to once again attempt to create an official set of Open Internet Rules to help.

There is one significant change between this set and those previously done. All the previous attempts by the FCC were to make the internet open for all, i.e. accessible to anyone with no restrictions. The current rules, up for preliminary vote on the 15th, are not in the same vein and have gotten derision by those who want net neutrality. The biggest fear is that if the rules go through as currently written, it would allow the ISP to charge extra for "fast lanes," or access priority to entities who are willing to pay for it. If your neighbor pays more than you, sorry, they're first in line. Better hope they're not a power user.

In defense of their new rules, Tom Wheeler released this announcement to attempt to clear up misunderstandings of the law that are causing so much concern. It starts off nice and all, but is worded such that it does not alleviate any of the fears. That is to say, nebulously and in a meandering fashion:

“To be clear, this is what the Notice will propose:

    1.     That all ISPs must transparently disclose to their subscribers and users all relevant information as to the policies that govern their network;
    2.     That no legal content may be blocked; and
    3.     That ISPs may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity.”

Let’s list a quick breakdown of the possible abuses allowed by the new rules:

    1.     As long as the throttling is disclosed to their subscribers and users, the ISP can regulate control as they see fit;
    2.     Blocked and restricted, or slowed, are very different, especially in a legal sense; and
    3.     Commercially unreasonable is too much of an open term, which favors ISPs, to take seriously."

And he started off so strongly, too.

Let's look at one possibility: The ISP or company that owns the ISP decides it wants to enter the streaming video business. They create their website and give it the fastest and most reliable service to the consumer; as they probably won't have the content that established services like Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon have, they instead slow down the performance of the other sites, or charge the sites privately (read: extortion) to force them to raise the rates of their customers to cover the costs. This causes the already-established markets to either have uncompetitive pricing or incredibly poor service. 

You'd think this shouldn't happen -- after all, above item 3 strictly forbids this behavior. Well, let’s take a look at the abuse that is already being enacted before the new rules are even in place.

In February, Netflix had to pay Comcast to get their content delivered to their subscribers in a faster and more reliable manner. Then, in April, Netflix yet again paid a provider—this time AT&T—to get their content out to their customers. The new rules being proposed will make it legal for this type of business practice. It would also allow the big money players, like Netflix, to have an unfair advantage over startups. This could prevent someone like the next Google or Facebook from being able to get going.

This retains relevance for gamers, too. Large transfers of data over the network are the focus of this fast tracking concept and AT&T has already filed for patents that would damage gaming. Streaming movies or heavy site traffic is only one aspect of data transfer. Servers that host multiplayer games are also potential targets for this rule, as are the receiving clients for patch and file fetching. P2P networks were already successfully targeted -- and P2P is used in file distribution for the likes of League of Legends, DOTA 2, World of Warcraft, and StarCraft II, among its other numerous legitimate uses. As a user, you pay a certain amount of money for access, but if the ISP says that gaming is using an unfair portion of the internet they will be allowed to throttle performance or charge extra, as long as it is in the terms of the contract you sign. And it's not like you can just go to another provider with a better contract.

Co-founder of Reddit Alexis Ohanian started up a campaign to post a billboard near the FCC headquarters to let them know that we don't want this to happen. If you are interested in joining this campaign, head over here.

Editorial & Writing: Scott "Abibiliboop" Griffin.
Additional Reporting: Michael "The Bear" Kerns.

Last modified on May 09, 2014 at 7:00 am

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