Comcast, Net Neutrality and The Future of Online Video

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TIME’s Techland blog has a good rundown of today’s D.C. Circuit Court decision that the Federal Communications Commission lacks the authority to enforce net neutrality rules. In essence, the decision means that internet providers–probably your cable or phone companies–can pretty much avoid being stopped by the FCC from making some content online harder to get than other content.

This is complicated stuff to ponder, but here is a hypothetical example of what net neutrality advocates now fear will happen: Say you use Comcast for broadband access at home, but choose not to pay for cable television from Comcast because it is cheaper and easier to download your favorite cable television shows from Apple’s iTunes and to stream movies from Netflix. In a Net Neutral World, Comcast can’t do anything about this. It has to provide its corporate rivals access to its wires. But without network neutrality, Comcast can slow the transmission of iTunes and Netflix videos, creating an incentive for you to either buy its cable service or buy a more expensive Internet plan with faster video.

The case before the D.C. Circuit concerned an instance in which the FCC wagged its finger at Comcast for slowing the transmission of a BitTorrent, a file sharing service, over its Internet connections. Comcast argued in court that the FCC had no place wagging its finger, and Comcast won. So why does this matter? Well one reason is the pending merger between NBC Universal, a company that produces a lot of video content, and Comcast.

As it now stands, Comcast has an apparent interest in blocking or slowing iTunes and Netflix videos, which compete with its cable subscriptions, but in a merged company, Comcast would also have an interest in promoting its own video content from NBC online. For conservatives out there, imagine a world in which it is easier to stream video of MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann than Fox News’s Glenn Beck. (Again, this is all hypothetical; Comcast has proposed no such thing.) “Comcast has a greater incentive to do that after than merger than now,” explains Andrew Jay Schwartzman, of the Media Access Project, who has been working against the Comcast/NBC merger.

The bigger issue here is whether or not the Internet will soon supplant cable as the main vehicle for video content. And this is an open question. But in 10 years, one can imagine two very different worlds–one in which the monthly cable/Internet bill is still our primary way for paying producers for video content, and one in which video content comes to us online in a way that the companies who control the tubes cannot directly profit from or control. A good policy question to ponder: Which world would you prefer to live in?