The Netflix-Comcast deal, and what it means for the future of net neutrality

by / Monday, 17 March 2014 / Published in Personal

I have always been of the opinion that sooner or later, a technology company will show you who they really are based on their decisions. Does a company truly care about innovation and changing the world, or are they willing to do whatever it takes to keep making money, even if it means betraying its customers?

In the case of Netflix, that company has certainly proved that it’s the latter, with the recent announcement that they had agreed to pay Comcast to ensure that the Internet provider wouldn’t interfere with streaming Netflix content. It’s only the most recent in a series of disheartening announcements around net neutrality that got started in January, when a federal court ruling struck down Federal Communications Commission guidelines that said Internet providers did not have the right to block or slow traffic as they see fit.

Now, proponents of net neutrality took another hit when Netflix announced they were simply going to knuckle under and pay the tolls Comcast had set up for them, instead of fighting for their right to distribute content without interference.

It’s a sordid tale for many reasons, particularly because there are conflicts of interest all over the place. Netflix was a natural target for Comcast to go after, both because it’s a company that’s responsible for a huge amount of Internet traffic, and because its business model cuts into Comcast’s cable television revenues. If an Internet provider can go after one company simply because it’s cutting into a revenue source, there’s no reason to believe that the Internet provider won’t use its position to interfere with all of its competitors. If, like Netflix, all other Comcast competitors decide it would be easier to simply give in to their demands than it would be to fight for the rights of net neutrality, it could end up being a very dark day indeed for technological innovation.

Netflix is able to pay off Comcast now because they are a big-name company with a lot of resources available to them, but just think about what would have happened if Comcast had tried to pull a stunt like this back when Netflix was a new company just trying to get started with its streaming service. The company may not have even made it this far if it started out having to pay for interference-free streaming.

That’s probably the most depressing part of this whole story for me. The Internet has been a hub of innovation for decades now, specifically because it was open to anyone. New companies who had big ideas but lacked big resources would still get the opportunity to make their ideas a reality, simply because there was no one there to stop them from using the Internet to their advantage.

Now, with this Netflix deal, a new precedent has been set: those companies who can afford to pay off Internet providers to keep their content visible on the Internet will continue to enjoy the benefits it can offer. Unfortunately, young startup companies, who are so often the source of innovative new technologies, may find their right to use the Internet for business purposes restricted, simply because an Internet provider has a problem with the way they do business.

So what does this decision mean for the future of net neutrality? I honestly hope I’m just being pessimistic here, and that this type of deal will be an anomaly going forward. Unfortunately, it can be hard to go back on these types of decisions once the precedent is set. My mind keeps going to the “slippery slope” theory: if we let Internet providers think they can get away with restricting content access for business reasons, who’s to say they couldn’t do the same thing with political content they don’t agree with?

There’s a reason totalitarian governments around the world try to limit free use of the Internet in their countries: the spread of information and ideas over the Internet is a powerful source of freedom and progress. If we don’t stand up for our right to use the Internet with no interference, we may end up depriving ourselves of that wonderful asset.