All eyes are on the Federal Communications Commission, as commissioner Tom Wheeler unveiled the FCC’s plan for “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet.” The plan has had many Internet-centric companies up in arms, decrying any plan that might create a two-tiered Internet comprising “fast lanes” for companies that can pay, and “slow lanes” for those that don’t. (See an open letter to the FCC signed by companies including Amazon, Google and Microsoft.) It’s a complicated topic that involves regulation, politicking and jargon, so we called on technology writer and observer Clay Shirky to share his take on what’s going on. An edited version of our conversation follows.
In the press we’re reading a lot about an “Internet slow lane.” What does that mean?
The Internet slow lane means the bandwidth you pay for no longer guarantees you equal access to everything that’s on the Internet. It means that the people you’re paying for bandwidth can decide what services they want you to get quickly, and what services they want you to get slowly. And, they can charge the sites you’re trying to look at for getting access to you, even though you’ve already paid for the bandwidth the first time.
Is this like paying for HBO or paying to upgrade a package?
It’s not. What happens with the HBO model is that you pay HBO for their content. What the cable companies are proposing now is that you pay extra for access. The additional money being extracted is not actually going from you to reward the people making the content. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. People who are making content have to pay money simply to get access to you. So this is not at all like pay per view TV, where you think “I want to watch that, I’ll pay money and get access to that content.” This is more like someone setting up a toll road at the edge of your town to raise the price of groceries.
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