Net neutrality -- the notion that broadband-internet providers shouldn't be allowed to prioritize, deprioritize, throttle or otherwise affect the content flowing through their pipes -- is back in the news.
Verizon has been in court arguing against the FCC's Open Internet Order of 2010, which declared that "Fixed broadband providers may not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic over a consumer's broadband internet access service." The FCC's rationale for imposing the rule, it said at the time, was to prevent "gatekeepers [from] limiting innovation and communication through the network."
Should the internet self-regulate? Or should the FCC have a say? Even within the content-creation and content-delivery industries, opinions vary widely -- often within the same company, or even within the same person.
Let's listen in on a spirited debated between ... well, I'll let you decide if it's two industry executives, or actually just one with a disturbingly split personality. I'll call them -- or him -- Walt and Heisenberg.
Walt: I don't know, I like the internet -- I like a lot of the stuff on the internet, and I like being able to access it without some sort of gatekeeper deciding how quickly or slowly it gets to me. What's wrong with the FCC having a nondiscrimination rule?
Heisenberg: Do you believe in capitalism?
Walt: Well, yes.
Heisenberg: Do you believe in the rule of law?
Walt: Of course.
Heisenberg: Then you shouldn't be in favor of a federal agency arbitrarily, by fiat, deciding it can tell me how to run my own business!
Walt: But isn't that what the FCC does? Make up rules that regulate communications?
Heisenberg: Yes, but Congress never declared broadband providers to be regulated utilities -- so-called "common carriers." This is my territory. Stay out of my territory.
Walt: But how is it good for consumers to have individual companies decide that they can throttle specific content?
Walt: But consumers hate that.
Heisenberg: And that's my problem how, exactly? We can't let a bunch of bandwidth hogs ruin things for everyone. The point is, consumers need to trust us to keep everything flowing by stopping some things from flowing.
Walt: But the idea that we're running out of bandwidth, that it needs to be rationed, is a myth. And what happens to streaming video if you get to decide what data packets get priority?
Heisenberg: Listen, every Tom, Dick and Harry with fat data packets can't just be allowed to clog my pipes. I've got my own fat packets to worry about.
Walt: But that's the point! Broadband providers are hopelessly conflicted these days! Think of Time Warner owning Time Warner Cable and a zillion content assets at the same time, from HBO to Warner Brothers. Or Comcast owning NBC Universal and everything under its umbrella. So you're saying that broadband providers should get to prioritize the flow of their own content if they want to, and screw, say, Netflix, if they feel like it?
Heisenberg: You want my honest opinion?
Heisenberg: Netflix must die! And YouTube and Hulu too! And --
Walt: But why?
Heisenberg: Because I don't own them. Because this is my territory. Because -- because I say so.
Walt: Look, I think you're putting yourself in danger -- you're putting us in danger -- over the long term if you throttle other companies' product. Because they're going to turn around and throttle your product because they have their own product to push.
Heisenberg: You think I'm in danger? I am the danger. I am the one who knocks!
Walt: Let me ask you something: Are you in the content business? Or the content-delivery business?
Heisenberg: Neither. I'm in the empire business.
Walt: Wow. Well, I -- I don't know what to say.
Heisenberg: Why don't you say nothing? You're always whining and complaining about how I make my money, dragging me down while I do everything. After I've told you and told you to keep your damn mouth shut? How dare you.
Walt: [after a long pause] Should we be abruptly fading to black and rolling the credits here or something?
Heisenberg: Yeah, let's do that. Oh, and one more thing: Your move, FCC.
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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.