By Robert Freedman, senior editor, REALTOR® Magazine
Imagine for a moment there’s no Internet regulatory authority over the telephone and cable companies that own the wires and pipes through which the data from Web sites flow to consumers and businesses.
Now imagine that one of the telephone and cable companies decides it wants to curtail traffic to any Web site that starts with the letter “U” and it just so happens that your Web site is www.upbeatrealestate.com.
As I understand the decision earlier this week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the Federal Communications Commission would lack jurisdiction to take action against the telephone and cable company for its disruption of services to your Web site because it begins with the letter “U.”
The actual court case isn’t quite like this, of course. The telephone and cable company is Comcast and the court said the FCC lacked authority to take action against the company for disrupting service against users who were using an Internet company’s peer-to-peer software for viewing videos. Comcast said it was only slowing file transfers from the video-viewing company because its software consumed prodigious amounts of bandwidth.
There’s more to the backstory than that, but what’s important for our purposes is the potential impact of the decision. The court said in effect that an Internet service provider like Comcast can pick and choose which services of companies using its wires and pipes it can disrupt. Although it would be silly to assume an Internet service provider would ever want to target for disruption Web sites that start with the letter “U,” theoretically it can do that.
Of course, there are any number of ways the federal government might step in to curb anything it believed to be an abuse. If it thought the Internet service provider was acting in a way that potentially violated a public interest, another federal agency could conceivably step in, depending on what public interest was involved.
In the shorthand of media analysts and lawmakers, the Comcast decision involves the issue of net neutrality. Generally speaking, supporters of net neutrality are Internet companies that want to ensure the wires or pipes through which digital content flow is kept neutral and no Internet companies or their Web sites are treated differently than any other companies or Web sites. The concern is that, if a supplier of the wires or pipes decides it wants to impact a particular site, it can dusrupt data flow to or from that site or charge more money for the data flow, putting it at a competitive disadvantage. So, to protect against that, net neutrality supporters say all Internet companies and sites should be treated equally.
On the other side of the issue, again speaking generally, are the companies that own the wires or pipes through which the data flow. Among the points they raise is that bandwidth is not infinite and so they have to exercise some control over how that bandwidth is used.
There’s a lot more to the issue and to the Comcast case specifically and it’s something NAR is watching. Certainly real estate brokers and sales associates have a stake in the issue; any action on the part of Internet service providers that would disrupt or discriminate against their ability to communicate to consumers online, including through the streaming of video, would be significant.
Among NAR’s six policy points on net neutrality, here are the last two, which are particularly germane to the Comcast decision: 5) Network providers should not discriminate among Internet data transmissions on the basis of the source of the transmission as they regulate the flow of network content, and 6) Broadband providers must be transparent about the service they provide and how they run their network.
Nothing will change tomorrow because of this court decision, and the FCC is surely exploring its options on what to do next. Congress will continue to look into the issue, too. More is to come. But for now, the companies that own the wires and pipes through which Internet data flow just won one over the FCC.