May 5, 2014 · 4 minutes

The danger posed by interconnection deals, which allow companies to better connect to Internet service providers' networks, is starting to be taken seriously. Level 3 Communications has written a blog post alleging that five ISPs in the United States and one in Europe have used their ubiquity to limit its ability to deliver information sent from its clients to consumers.

The blog post follows recent controversies surrounding the power ISPs wield over how data is sent from companies to consumers, following a deal struck by Netflix and Comcast that will allow Netflix to deliver videos to consumers faster than before. (Netflix has since struck a similar deal with Verizon, and is expected to continue making them with other ISPs.) The deal offers Netflix a competitive advantage over other video services, lets Comcast charge both Netflix and consumers for videos streamed over its network, and threatens the idea of an Internet where data sent from some companies isn't given preference over others.

The problem is that these deals don't technically run afoul of existing net neutrality rules because they don't directly affect the "last mile" of the Internet. While the deals have a noticeable effect on performance -- Comcast jumped six spots in Netflix's ranking of ISPs after the deal was announced -- they are allowed by the Federal Communications Commission.

Having companies like Level 3 complain about these deals lends credence to the idea that they directly affect the experience many consumers have when they visit certain websites. Netflix has previously complained about interconnection deals, but it's hard to take the company's protestations seriously when it condemns deals one day and announces more the next. A single voice won't keep this issue in the headlines -- the Internet needs a cacophony of them.

Until that happens, advocates will continue to argue semantics while the FCC makes promises no one knows it can keep and companies like Comcast continue to twist their knives in the free Internet's back to make a few extra (million) bucks. Let's hope that doesn't happen.

Pando weighs in

I wrote about the FCC’s unwillingness to defend the free Internet after Wheeler said that deals like Comcast and Netflix's aren’t covered by existing net neutrality laws:

Splitting issues that could affect the foundation of the Internet and allowing companies like Comcast to hamstring the greatest technological innovation in human history — or at least the innovation just behind man-made fire and wine — because the FCC wants to focus on semantics is insane. The Internet isn’t just the series of tubes connecting Comcast’s infrastructure to our homes: it’s the whole damned thing, from the servers operated by companies like Netflix all the way down to the cables in our homes.

Comcast might not be violating net neutrality laws, but it’s certainly violating the spirit behind them. It’s about time the FCC did something about that. On the European Union’s attempts to defend the free Internet:

The legislation is meant to provide access to online services ‘without discrimination, restriction or interference, independent of the sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application.’ For example, ISPs would be barred from slowing down or ‘throttling’ the speed at which one service’s videos are delivered while allowing other services to stream at normal rates. To bastardize Gertrude Stein: a byte is a byte is a byte.

Such restrictions would prevent deals like the one Comcast recently made with Netflix, which will allow the service’s videos to reach consumers faster than before. Comcast is also said to be in talks with Apple for a deal that would allow videos from its new streaming video service to reach consumers faster than videos from competitors. The Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality laws don’t apply to those deals, according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, so they are allowed to continue despite the threat they pose to the free Internet. On FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's promises to defend the free Internet:

The agency is still ignoring the peering and interconnection agreements that allow companies like Comcast to charge both companies and consumers for access to its network. It’s still manned by people who fought the principles it’s now trying to defend. And it’s still the same agency whose own incompetence threatened the Internet in the first place.

So how about it: do you trust an axe-murderer willing to slaughter the free Internet in broad daylight, or do you think the FCC will do what it’s supposed to and defend the free Internet? Remember that axes leave scars, and that idealism is rarely enough to keep death at bay. On the futility of arguing about what net neutrality really means:

The terms we use to describe these issues directly affect our ability to defend the free Internet. If more people explored the ways that deals like the one between Netflix and Comcast threaten consumers instead of pointing out that they don’t technically violate net neutrality rules, we might start a conversation that the millions of people affected by these deals can understand. If the FCC can change its laws to use the right words, it might be able to protect the Internet.

But if we continue to argue about the meaning of net neutrality to defend the actions of companies threatening the very idea of the free Internet, all we’ve done is split hairs while the Internet collapsed around us. This is a time for action, not a time for pedantic arguments about ultimately meaningless terms.