If ISPs Are Too Powerful, Isn't Amazon?

If ISPs Are Too Powerful, Isn't Amazon?

Most of the Internet giants -- companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix -- are supportive of net neutrality, a policy that would require Internet Service Providers to treat all Internet traffic equally. The most popular argument for net neutrality is that without it, there's nothing to stop an ISP from slowing down or speeding up content to serve its own ends -- for example, slowing down Netflix streaming while speeding up a movie service offered by the ISP itself.

The problem with this, opponents say, is that treating all traffic equally doesn't make sense. A customer streaming an entire movie imposes far more costs on the ISP than a customer reading an e-mail does -- and Internet infrastructure isn't cheap. AT&T executive Jim Cicconi probably asked it best: Who should really have to pay for this bandwidth-heavy traffic?

Until recently, ISPs socialized the costs -- no one wants an Internet bill that fluctuates based on how much data they use, so most plans offered unlimited service for a flat price and left it at that. Increasingly, however, ISPs are reaching separate deals with the highest-bandwidth services, including Netflix; these companies pay ISPs to carry massive amounts of traffic without slowing service down. This is a commonsense solution, ensuring that the heaviest users pay for the bandwidth they consume without moving to consumer-unfriendly plans with bills that vary month to month depending on data usage.

But Internet giants continue to support net neutrality, on the grounds that ISPs might abuse their power to slow down traffic. This is rather ironic: These companies themselves control vast swaths of Internet traffic. Google currently controls 67 percent of the search engine market; Netflix can account for 34 percent of Internet traffic during peak hours; Facebook has over 1 billion members and has become a homepage of the Internet of sorts; and Amazon controls an e-commerce empire, with revenues of $74 billion in 2013. All of these companies have near-monopolistic control over their markets, greatly influencing what people watch, read, learn, and purchase.

Most of the algorithms that control what these sites' users see are closely held trade secrets -- no one knows how Google decides what makes it to the first few pages of a search result, and no one knows anything about the algorithm that decides what makes it to Facebook's news feed. Just as an ISP could in theory manipulate Internet traffic to serve its own ends, Facebook and Google could decide you shouldn't see content from a certain creator, or Amazon could decide you shouldn't get access to certain books.

We've seen very blatant examples of this recently. Amazon, for one, is in a feud with the book publisher Hachette and has made it very difficult for customers to purchase Hachette books. Facebook has tweaked its algorithm several times over the past few months, each time sending traffic one way or the other across the Internet. Google often does the same; one tweak last month resulted in the highly respected site Metafilter seeing a 40 percent drop in traffic.

The fight for "net neutrality" seems to be, above all, about some major tech players losing their power as gatekeepers to commerce and information.

Zack Christenson writes on digital tech issues for the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research institute.

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