Tomorrow FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler will propose a controversial new set of internet regulations that will potentially allow broadband providers to create "fast lanes" of service for the first time — so that if Netflix pays Comcast extra, its movies will stream faster and in higher quality than Apple's. This has been a contentious issue for years, and Wheeler's proposal has attracted a huge amount of backlash from internet users and virtually every observer who isn't being paid by the cable industry (myself included), and it's led to what is essentially a political crisis at the FCC, as both Democratic and Republican commissioners have voiced opposition to Wheeler's plan.
In response, Wheeler will also ask for comments on an alternative approach that would entirely prohibit fast lanes by imposing much stricter regulations under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, which would regulate broadband as a common carrier in the same manner as telephone service. This is anathema to the broadband industry, which obviously wants to squeeze as much profit out of the network as possible, even though companies like Verizon selectively claim Title II protections to lay fiber when convenient. So the lobbyists are out in force. Tomorrow will be insanity.
But let's step back for a moment. What's so bad about fast lanes?
The answer, as it happens, is right in front of you at every airport in the country.
I got lucky the other day as I ran to catch a flight at Chicago's O'Hare Airport: the TSA was conducting one of its regular PreCheck promotions, and I was waved through security without having to take off my shoes, take off my belt, pull my laptop out of my bag, or even set aside my toiletry bag. I just threw my phone and wallet in my backpack, cruised through a standard metal detector, and moved on. I was literally in the fast lane. As I walked to my gate, I tried to identify the peculiar feeling that was washing over me.
It was dignity. I was feeling dignity at an American airport. As a brown man who regularly travels with a bag full of wires, this was a shocking sensation. I almost took a selfie.
When I got home, I jumped online and made a PreCheck appointment, which involved going to the signup center at La Guardia, letting a nice TSA employee scan my passport, take my fingerprints, ask if I was a felon, and charge me $85. That's it. I'm in the fast lane for the next five years. So long, suckers.
But let's rewind and examine why I was so willing to give the government $85, my fingerprints, and permission to examine my behavior for the next half-decade: because the standard airport security experience is absolutely miserable. In the years since 9/11, we've built up what experts call security theater: expensive and ineffective systems and processes that make us feel better, but which are easily defeated and provide no clear benefits. (Case in point: the TSA office at LaGuardia is behind security, which usually requires a boarding pass to clear. But because I had a PreCheck appointment, I sailed through with a pass from a nearby airline desk. "Am I finally going to spend a full day at Slip Mahoney's Irish Pub?" I idly wondered. It was 10:15 am.)
The TSA could put everyone in the fast lane and we'd all be fine. In fact, the TSA regularly puts everyone in the fast lane as a promotional tactic for PreCheck; that's how I got through at O'Hare. Why don't we just come to our senses and make it better for everyone?
The cynical answer is that I wouldn't have given the government $85 and my fingerprints if the regular experience wasn't miserable. Because the TSA has no competition, it effectively forced me to pay more for what should be the standard level of service. I did it, but I'm not happy about it.
It's the same with broadband providers. Allowing Comcast or Time Warner Cable to build fast lanes on the internet means that they'll have enormous incentives to push everyone towards them — and almost no incentive to improve the miserable standard experience in the slow lanes, which will remain expensive and congested. Want Netflix to work better? Just pay Comcast a little more. You're a social networking startup that wants to take on Facebook? Better factor in the ISP tax to make sure your content loads as fast as Zuckerberg's. This is basically free money for broadband providers; Comcast throttled Netflix traffic for years, but when the company finally broke down and paid, speeds shot up 65 percent. This is lawyer-money, not engineer-money. Everyone involved should feel dirty.
Let's call the opposite of net neutrality broadband theater: the cable industry will claim it's spending a lot of money on innovation to make us feel better, but absent any competition or oversight, the rest of us will end up standing around with no shoes on, wondering where our dignity went.