The Internet community is an amorphous entity, but when the government tries to mess with it, it can rise up as one and show its power. The Federal Communications Commission is seeing that with its attempt to add a so-called Internet fast lane.
Perhaps that's because most of us recognize that the strength of the Internet is that it's an open platform where everyone, from garage startups to Google and Facebook, has equal opportunity. For the most part, even the big guys recognize the power of this approach and don't want to mess with it.
But not all of them. Last month, Netflix opened the door to the notion that some companies could have special access when it cut a deal with Comcast to boost its speed. It was kind of forced into it because Comcast appeared to have been throttling Netflix's speed for Comcast customers for some time. (As a Comcast customer, I can tell you that I saw a noticeable difference before and after the deal.)
Perhaps not coincidentally, just a short time later, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler floated his now infamous "fast lane" proposal. The idea on its face sounds semi-reasonable: Create a two-tiered system on the Internet, in which heavy users like Netflix pay more to access the network. But what may sound plausible on paper could get messy in a hurry. As Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, told the Los Angeles Times, "It could create a tiered Internet where consumers either pay more for content and speed, or get left behind with fewer choices."
It didn't take long for the backlash, or for Wheeler to begin to back down in the face of stinging criticism. As David Carr pointed out in The New York Times this week, we've seen this type of reaction before. The Internet rose as one when Congress proposed the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), with the Internet glitterati coming together to stop it. Sites like Reddit and Wikipedia went so far as to shut down for a day in protest. The powers that be heard that message loud and clear, and it appears they are hearing the Internet community this time around too.
Now we have Wheeler beginning to vacillate, but sounding a bit like the revised commandments in George Orwell's Animal Farm: Everyone on the Internet will remain equal, but some users will be more equal than others. And it all comes to a head tomorrow when the FCC votes on this proposal.
Can these political appointees on the FCC board really stand up to the likes of Comcast? It's a tough question, especially since many use the FCC as a steppingstone to high-paying industry jobs when they leave the commission. It's hard to say no when you know that the guy you're saying no to could be cutting you a fat check in a couple of years to work for him.
Yet the power of the people does sometimes shine through this morass of corruption and special interests, and if the Internet community can come together and raise one voice, it's possible that even the FCC will listen.
It's happened before, but in that case the party that caved was Congress, whose members have to answer to the voters at some point. They couldn't ignore the rancor of their constituents. The FCC board members don't answer to anyone, except perhaps the president, and it's hard to gauge his influence or his interest in the case.
One thing is certain: The Internet community is unhappy. It will be interesting to see if the FCC responds to the will of the people or the will of the industry lobby. I remain hopeful but cynical on that point.
Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist and blogger. He is an editor at FierceContentManagement and a contributing editor at EContent Magazine.