Internet enthusiasts have been swapping gleeful fist bumps, now that the Federal Communications Commission has voted to regulate online connectivity more aggressively, in the name of “net neutrality.” But if you or your loved ones like watching Netflix’s streaming movies via a campus Internet connection, you may be cursing the FCC before long.
Consider the way Internet resources are allocated right now at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. Currently, campus network administrators enjoy wide freedom to adjust priorities that match students’ needs in different locations or at different times of day. Here’s how Greta Pangborn, St. Michaels’ chair of the computer science department,explained the situation to the campus newspaper, The Defender.
“If you’re working in a classroom,” Pangborn said, “web traffic is more likely to be for homework, and more of our bandwidth should be used for that than for streaming media. In our dorms, the priority goes to streaming media, because the focus should be on entertainment in the dorms.”
There’s every reason for students to be happy with this arrangement. It favors different types of traffic in different settings, all carefully done in a way that matches up with academic needs and entertainment desires. But playing favorites in this fashion — even if it’s what everybody on campus wants — flies in the face of strict net neutrality, a doctrine that argues that all packets on the Internet should be treated equally at all times.
Will the FCC decide that its new regulatory regime — in which Internet service providers are supposed to be regulated as utilities under the stricter provisions of Title II of the Communications Act — makes it necessary to crack down on schools like Saint Michael’s because of their not-so-neutral approaches to Internet connectivity?
That would be a screamingly unpopular decision. The FCC is giving itself a lot of leeway to enforce parts of Title II when it wants to, and to ignore other parts as the mood strikes it. But if the FCC really is serious about net neutrality, it will be hard to turn a blind eye to campus arrangements that rearrange connectivity priorities so that students can get really good Netflix connections on Friday evening.
And if the FCC decides to wink and let such arrangements go by, you can bet that the big-league Internet service provides such as Comcast and Verizon are going to squawk about selective enforcement anytime their practices come under fire.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, columnist Gordon Crovitz argues that Netflix — one of last year’s biggest advocates of net neutrality — is experiencing lobbyists’ remorse now that the FCC has opted for a heavier regulatory touch. (Not so, says a Netflix spokesperson.) Crovitz notes that when Netflix’s chief financial officer, David Wells, was asked at an investor conference if he liked the FCC’s move to Title II regulation, the executive replied: “Probably not. We were hoping there might be a nonregulated solution.”