Net Neutrality Is Essential for Virtual Worlds

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.

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About Justin Kwong

An attorney in the Twin Cities and adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law where I teach a seminar on the law of virtual worlds.
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7 Responses to Net Neutrality Is Essential for Virtual Worlds

  1. Pingback: World Wide News Flash

  2. No offense intended on this, but I’ve seen these rants and raves. I’ve heard chicken-little. But I have not seen a reasoned analysis of the Verizon-Google Legislative Proposal.

    I assume that you have read this more in-depth than myself. But as of now, I see it as a demand for open and fair use of broadband-landlines but no requirement to restrict Wireless at this time.

    What are the current standards? Is this less restrictive than the current standards? More restrictive? How does this change the standards?

    Are their positive implementations in regard to to the proposal and virtual world and broadband compared to the current standard?

    I would love to see an article that actually looks into these questions, as opposed to those written by chicken-little

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the proposal, right?

  3. Entertaining, thank you. And I understand their concern about net neutrality. However, I have yet to hear how this changes the existing standards. It seems to me that the proposal can be analogized to the following story:

    GoV (Google/Verizon) – “There are no laws requiring us to be nice to puppies (landline) and kitties (wireless). We propose a law that requires us to be nice to puppies. Maybe somewhere down the line we will make it a law that we have to be nice to kitties too… but not now.”

    Chicken little – OMG U guyz r so mean u guyz is gonna kill da kitties. stfu with “do no evil” u guyz is bad.

    Despite the fact that GoV is placing additional restrictions and commitments on themselves and others, everyone is focused on the failure to not go far enough.

    I would like to point out that at no time did either Google or Verizon ever state that they – in and of themselves – would not be treating the wireless system equally. Just that there would be no law to do so.

    • Justin Kwong says:

      Well put, Mr. Ascheman. You are right on several points: 1) that Google/Verizon proposed changes do not affect the existing standards at all; 2) that the proposal would actually bind them with respect to landline internet; and 3) that Google/Verizon has not stated that they will throttle connections on wireless internet if they get their way. Where people are drawing their concerns is in what Google/Verizon isn’t saying.

      First, the state of the law as it exists today: As you may know, the FCC is the federal agency responsible for regulating common carrier communications media in interstate commerce. The agency derives its authority from statutes, 47 U.S.C.A. §§ 151 et seq., which grant it power over landline telephony (id. §§ 201 et seq.), radio transmissions (including TV and radio broadcasts) (id. §§ 301 et seq.) and cellular telephony (id. §§ 521 et seq.). As you may have deduced, that list doesn’t include Internet service, which regardless of how it is delivered is neither telephony nor a broadcast. Until recently, the FCC has relied upon broad language from § 154(i), which instructs the agency to perform any and all acts it deems necessary to execute its mission, to regulate Internet traffic by ISPs.

      I said “until recently” because a legal challenge by Comcast—who didn’t like it when the FCC said it couldn’t relegate Bit Torrents to lower priority—called that authority into question and in April the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed. See Comcast Corp. v. FCC, 600 F.3d 642 (D.C. Cir. 2010). The court found that the FCC acted arbitrarily and capriciously in exercising this authority because “the allowance of wide latitude in the exercise of delegated powers is not the equivalent of untrammeled freedom to regulate activities over which the statute fails to confer… authority.” Id. at 661. The case will undoubtedly be appealed to the Supreme Court, but in the meantime, the FCC essentially has no authority over Internet traffic regulation. Congress had yet to weigh in on the matter because it was busy with financial reform and some land war in Asia. Enter the Google/Verizon proposal.

      The two-page Google/Verizon framework is just that, a proposal, it has no power to do anything other than stirring a hornets’ nest. You are right that Google/Verizon didn’t say that they actually planned to create a tiered system. The whole point in proposing that wireless Internet not be regulated, however, leaves that option open and if they don’t, someone else probably will. It’s a slippery slope argument. Yes it’s very Chicken Little, and consumers will likely have a lot of sway to prevent draconian measures like Google blocking access to Bing searches, etc. But don’t forget that the wireless companies have a lot of power over users because everyone is pretty much locked into a 2-year contract. This will prevent people from voting with their feet if they don’t like any change in policy. Sure you can pay the ETF and leave, but your device will still be locked to the old network which means you’ll have to cough up even more money for a new device on a different carrier.

      Finally, it’s true that there’s no real proof out there that a tiered Internet would be a bad thing. Some people argue that just shunting all the file sharing off to a different tier will drastically improve speeds for everyone else without having to make any other distinctions. And if there is a tiered Internet, maybe it will have the same impact that cable had on broadcast TV. We have several levels of subscription available and all of them compete and there are great shows that are free, and some that you can only get on premium channels. I guess I’m in the camp that says we need to move carefully. At least give the FCC authority to regulate if things get out of hand (whatever that means). If we just leave the foxes to guard the henhouse, it will be our fault if we have no eggs for breakfast.

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