Verizon may not have a motto pledging not to be evil, but the company on whose free mobile platform I’m composing this post has been up to no good of late. Internet search giant Google has recently been accused of doing things that are debatably nefarious, if not quite evil, in Korea and of course China, but Google’s support for a plan amend FCC rules to allow companies to pay for better bandwidth on mobile networks should be taken very seriously. A New York Times story on Monday detailed the Mountain View, California company’s joint proposal with Verizon to allow wireless companies and other “non-traditional” Internet access providers to route content on a pay-for-play basis. They would ostensibly leave the “regular”—meaning the terrestrial or wired—Internet alone.
I’m not going to get into the details of the proposed plan, but the heart of it is that the companies would create a tiered Internet favoring sites with lots of cash. There are many reasons why a fractured Internet is a bad idea, one of which is that it would discourage providers from expanding existing bandwidth capacity. Another is that it would stifle innovation from emerging, net-based businesses that could be squeezed out by established rivals who can afford faster connections to users. My point is that an Internet that favors those with more resources defeats one of the key features of the global network.
Virtual worlds and other social networking services could suffer considerably from a loss of net neutrality. The proposed plan probably would not affect the terrestrial Internet that serves most—if not all—major virtual worlds like World of Warcraft, EVE or Second Life. A tiered Internet, however, could limit the number of worlds that could take part in the mobile computing revolution. Although the current iterations of those massive, three-dimensional worlds still take too much processor power to render on most of today’s mobile devices, we ideally want the Internet to be ready when they do get fast enough (heck, some devices like the iPhone 4, the EVO 4G or the forthcoming Droid2 may even be ready to support some worlds now). I’ve already argued that mobile devices derailed the ascendance of virtual worlds, it would be quite disheartening if a gated system further impeded their development.
It’s also worth noting that most virtual worlds still allow users to access them for free. Those that do charge a fee likely charge the lowest amount they can sustain in order to keep the marginal players from dropping their subscriptions. Simple economics would predict, then, that an increase in costs to compete for higher bandwidth would force companies to eat into profit margins to pay for speed. Sure many players would love the opportunity for faster connections, but without being able to attract and hook the people at the margins, game growth will stagnate.
Let the cable companies and networks do what they want with television; I barely have time to catch the shows I like on Hulu. The Internet, however, is too important to allow it to be divided up and walled off. A medium designed to connect people and ideas cannot succeed if some get favorable treatment while others are left in the dust.