Net Neutrality Matters To Movie And Music Fans

The fight between NetFlix and Comcast could help determine who controls access to some of your favorite websites and how much that access costs. It's part of the larger net neutrality debate over how phone and cable companies manage Internet traffic. Wired's Ryan Singel explains what's at stake.

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TONY COX, host:

Right now, there is a raging debate over what you as a consumer can do online and what it should cost you. More and more, Americans are downloading music and streaming movies on their computers, but more streaming and downloading means more Internet traffic. And the rules regarding all that traffic are still very much up in the air.

The latest salvo in the debate over so-called Net neutrality is a tussle between NetFlix and Internet giant Comcast. And while the mechanics of Net neutrality can be a bit confusing, what the government eventually decides may ultimately affect what you can do or watch online and what you'll pay for it.

To help us sort out what Net neutrality is really about and what it means for you is Wired magazine's Ryan Singel. If you want to pick his brain about Net neutrality and what it means, give us a call. Our number, 800-989-8255. The email address, talk@npr.org.

Ryan Singel is a staff writer for Wired, as we said, joining us now from member station KQED in San Francisco. Ryan, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. RYAN SINGEL (Staff Writer, Wired): Thanks for having me on.

COX: Let's begin with this. When we talk about Net neutrality, what are we talking about in terms people can understand?

Mr. SINGEL: It's a very complicated term, but essentially, there's a few principles, which is one, the Internet should be open and free. So people should be able to use the devices, the services, the application, the browser of their choice, and they should be able to have a choice between ISPs. And one of the other points is that ISPs, you know, should not be choosing winners and losers on the Internet, so they should not be choosing that Hulu will stream for free but NetFlix will cost you more.

COX: ISPs being Internet service providers, correct?

Mr. SINGEL: Exactly. The people you pay to hook your computer up to the Internet.

COX: All right, all right. Now, what is the problem then? Now that we know what Net neutrality is, what is the current controversy and crisis?

Mr. SINGEL: What happened is in the Bush administration they deregulated, so they moved ISPs into this kind of loose category of regulation. And they set this four rules, basically saying that, you know, people could use whatever services they wanted and whatever browser they wanted and whatever software they wanted. And then Comcast got caught messing with peer-to-peer traffic. They were blocking it. So the FCC tried to enforce these regulations against the - against Comcast and go ahead.

COX: Excuse me. Let me stop you again just because I want to make sure that we don't lose people. Peer-to-peer traffic would be what?

Mr. SINGEL: Peer-to-peer traffic is a way of downloading very large files, so it can be very - it has a lot of traffic involved with it. So you can download a movie or you can download a new operating system and you're not getting it just from one server. You're getting it from a whole bunch of people on the Internet that everybody shares bandwidth.

COX: Is that what people do when they, for example, download movies?

Mr. SINGEL: It is if you're downloading - it's a very common way to download pirated movies, but there's also some very legitimate uses for it.

COX: All right. So continue your - continue explaining.

Mr. SINGEL: So the FCC said that Comcast was not playing fairly, that they were saying this kind of traffic wasn't going to be able to get through when things were congested. So the FCC essentially told Comcast to cut it out. And Comcast said, okay, we'll cut it out but then they challenged the rules in court, and the court struck it down and said the FCC has deregulated ISPs. You have no power to tell ISPs what they can and cannot do.

So that left the FCC in a place where they had no authority to police what are sort of very basic, you know, assumptions that people have, that, you know, that we go online, we can get to Google if we want to. We want to go to YouTube, we can get there. If I want to use, you know, this browser rather than that browser, I should be able to do that. But right now, the FCC is in limbo and it doesn't actually have any of this power to enforce that.

COX: So are these the rules that the FCC is contemplating putting in force, which are drawing up all of this debate between Comcast and people like Netflix over whether or not the FCC does have the authority to do anything, and what the limitations of that authority might be?

Mr. SINGEL: Exactly. The big companies like Comcast and AT&T, the big telecoms that control the kind of the backbone of the Internet, they argue that there just don't need to be rules because there's enough competition and, you know, they'll play fairly.

And then you have groups on the sort of consumer interest groups who say that, you know, the Internet has been this amazing platform for innovation because it's open and nobody controls it, and that if we don't have these rules, the big telecoms are going to find a way to turn the Internet into something that has tollbooths all over it.

CONAN: All right. If you like to join and get into the conversation, the number is 800-989-8255. The email address is: talk@npr.org.

Let's take a call. This is Donald(ph) from Boerne, Texas. Donald, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DONALD (Caller): Well, thank you. Good afternoon.

COX: Good afternoon to you.

DONALD: The comment about the commercial issues that are at stake, it seems that even when you call up, say, a local business, the order in which they are listed is also determined by commercial considerations. I got a quick two-part question and I'll get off the air. To what extent is it a commercial consideration because of capacity constraints and the eventual cost to get the broadband we need? And number two, is there any way to bifurcate commercial versus noncommercial traffic? Thank you.

COX: Donald, thank you for the call. What about that, Ryan?

Mr. SINGEL: The big cost for traffic these days isn't actually the -sort of - the, you know, Internet video. It - the sort of the highways of the Internet are really big right now. So what's what the ISPs are worried about is more like the local lanes. So it costs them a lot of money to upgrade the connection to your house. But the sort of the cost of traffic to them is actually very, very small. It's a very small part of their cost. What's really expensive is, you know, is you calling in because you have a problem with your computer or them having to upgrade the lines. So, in terms of sort of dividing out commercial and noncommercial traffic, it's not really necessary. It's like that's not what is expensive.

So, you know, there is also the question of you know, the caller brought up the original question of, you know, of search engines and in what order they list things when you search for them. And this is not something the FCC is interested in. The FCC is interested in something way lower than that, which is just the rules on how things get connected. They don't want to get into the game of, you know, is Google or Microsoft Bing treating things, you know, businesses fairly or not. They will leave that to somebody like the Federal Trade Commission.

COX: Here's another caller. This is Michael(ph) from Waltham, Massachusetts. Hello, Michael. Welcome to the show.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. Yeah. I understand what he said about the function of peer-to-peer was. That's to move a lot of traffic that's got tons of information on it. What I but he never explained what peer-to-peer means. What's a peer?

COX: Thank you, Michael. So what is a peer exactly?

Mr. SINGEL: Sure. A peer is actually just you. So if you use Skype, for instance, Skype is a way of making phone calls on the Internet where you use other people's computers to help send it along. So the way if you were downloading a file - you go and you want to download a copy of the Bible, which is out of copyright and so it's actually legal to download. I go and I ask in a peer-to-peer situation, I go and I ask a kind of a central server for information about the file. But instead of that server sending it all to me, it sends a piece to me and a piece to all the other people who are downloading it. And then, when I need piece Z, I go to a user in Texas and he sends it to me. And then, when somebody in Alabama needs it, they - you know, they need piece G, they get it from me.

So it's this way of distributing distribution so that you don't have that one central point where everybody is trying to, you know, ask the same computer for the same information.

COX: One of the things I'd like to ask you about is that there seems to be and tell me if I'm misinterpreting this conflicting signals coming from the FCC with regard to what it is likely to do. Earlier in the year, Commissioner Julius Genachowski suggested that he wanted to keep things as they were - meaning hands off, so to speak, with regard to regulation. Here lately, there seem to be signs that he's moving more and the commission is moving more towards compromising and, in fact, instituting some form of regulation. Is that correct?

Mr. SINGEL: That is. In fact, late last night, they said that they are going to put new rules onto the docket. So they're going to start talking about this at their December 21st meeting. And essentially, they're going to try and put back the rules that were lost in the court challenge. So they're going to say that, if your ISP wants to has congestion problems and wants to slow down video when things are busy, they're going to have tell people how they do this. They're going to have to be transparent. They're going to have to allow you to use whatever online services you want to, whatever computer you want to and, you know, whatever software you like.

And some of these rules will also be applied for the first time to your wireless phone, so the same rules. They have to be transparent. And your, you know, AT&T cannot block, say, YouTube because, you know, they would rather have you watch their video service.

COX: Now, there are a number of calls that we're going to get to, and I have an email in my hand. But I want to follow up with you on this point very quickly. To whose benefit does it appear that the FCC's ruling, if it is as you have described, to whose benefit is it?

Mr. SINGEL: Well, what the FCC did is they took a middle course. So they had been talking about trying to put - to sort of reregulate ISPs in a very strong way, putting them back in the same bucket as the telephone company. Now, the telephone company has tons of rules about how much they charge and, you know, every phone call has to - you know, if you place a phone call, AT&T has to take it. They can't decide that you can't do that.

They have backed off, so they've decided to just try and add these rules without putting them in this very strong regulatory bucket. So the winners here are actually the telecoms, I think. So AT&T and Comcast, both today, came out supporting the sort of compromised rules. And the Obama administration has angered some of their more - some of their populist support.

COX: We're talking about the debate over Net neutrality and how it may affect the way you surf the Web and what you pay for it. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

All right, let's go to Portland, Oregon. This is - I believe it is Chanel(ph). Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CHANEL (Caller): Thank you. I'm assuming that this change in charging us to access things like Netflix is motivated by money, so my question is as a subscriber to Comcast for my Internet, how much of what I pay to them every month covers the cost of accessing that? I would assume that it would cover it, but I just - I can't tell if they're being greedy or if they're actually just trying to cover costs of the infrastructure of what we access on the Internet.

COX: Chanel, thank you for the call. What about it, Ryan?

Mr. SINGEL: That's an excellent question. So right now, there's this ongoing, sort of this new dispute between Comcast and this company called Level 3, which is a huge company that most people have never heard of. And essentially, Level 3 is the highway system of the Internet, or one of the companies that does it. So you don't subscribe to them, you don't pay them, but they carry the bulk of the Internet traffic across the country.

COX: All right, here's another caller. This is Josh(ph) from Bluebell, Pennsylvania. Josh, you are on - oh, we lost Josh. Josh, call back. I hit the wrong button. My apologies to you. While we try to get him back, let me read something to you. This is an email that came in from Jake(ph): In the real world, public roads are the highway between the movie theater and our homes. On the Web, all roads are private. Should our Internet highways be government-run and maintained, how can we argue these telecoms be forced to act like public agencies?

Mr. SINGEL: That's a very good question, and there are places that have tried to do this and some places that have done it well. You have municipalities that have built out big fiber, you know, connections to -in their cities, and fiber is very fast. And then generally what they do is they just allow other companies to rent the fiber. But we've just built out a very private - privately-owned telecom system, and it's been that way since we've had AT&T and their monopoly starting in the 1920s.

So moving - trying to move from that, you know, these huge, you know, telecoms that are worth - you know, make $40 billion a year to a completely public infrastructure is not going to happen anytime soon.

COX: All right, let's squeeze in another call. This is Daniel(ph) from Niceville - this is Carl(ph), actually, from East Hampton, New York. Carl, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CARL (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to comment on the concept of these companies doing the right thing without regulation; I think it's absolutely ridiculous. Out here, our provider, which is Cablevision, is a monopoly. There's no competition. They do whatever they want to. Their pricing practices are basically predatory. They're always forcing you to try and - or trying to force you to take things you don't want.

And I'll give you a perfect example. If somebody rents a house and has Internet service in it, doesn't pay their bill and moves out, somebody else moves in, tries to get Internet service, they'll force that person to pay the last person's bill before they'll even connect it. I mean, that's absurd. The IRS is kind and compassionate by comparison.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Carl, thank you for the call. What's your comment to that, Ryan?

Mr. SINGEL: There are lots of people who don't like their ISPs. And especially with, you know, mainly the competition these days is between - you have a choice between cable or DSL, which is by your phone company, and cable is the fast one and DSL is generally much slower. It's a little bit more competition when it comes to wireless, you know, we have four pretty big carriers. But it's - the argument that there is actually competition among, you know, the ISPs you get at your house, I think, is a very thin argument.

COX: My apologies to you, Daniel from Niceville, Florida, we have run out of time and unfortunately I can't get your call in. I wanted to, and I apologize for that. Let me ask you as I end this with you, Ryan, is this a sea change we are about to see, very quickly?

Mr. SINGEL: No, we're just at the end of the beginning of what's going to be a very long and ongoing battle. The Internet is the communication infrastructure of the future, and the battle over who owns it and what the rules are is going to keep going for another five or six years.

COX: Ryan Singel is a staff writer for Wired magazine. He joined us today from member station KQED in San Francisco. Ryan, thank you very much. It was interesting.

Mr. SINGEL: Thanks for having me on.

COX: Tomorrow, the man arrested last week for allegedly plotting to blow up thousands of people in Portland, Oregon, claiming entrapment. We'll talk about that defense. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox.

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