During the fight over the much-maligned Stop Online Piracy Act, the implacably irreverent denizens of Reddit took a moment to contemplate their future should the controversial bill become law. Under the headline "If SOPA passes..." one Redditor whipped up an image macro of Will Ferrell (as Ron Burgundy) screaming: "We'll make our own internet and you won't be invited!"
SOPA did not pass, of course, so the creation of a new internet was not needed. But a similar sentiment actually caught on with internet service providers after the Federal Communications Commission passed net neutrality rules in December 2010. With their behavior on fixed broadband now hemmed in by regulations, the ISPs are, in effect, creating a secondary sort of internet that allows them more freedom to influence their customers' media consumption. Among insiders it is known as "the Schminternet."
Seriously. The Schminternet. Blogger Jeff Jarvis coined the term in August 2010 after Google and Verizon announced that they had arrived at a joint framework for net neutrality regulations that, as Jarvis put it, "makes two huge carve-outs to neutrality and regulation of the internet: mobile and anything new." Those carve-outs ended up in the framework adopted by the FCC, and broadband providers are using those loopholes to create the Schminternet, which operates outside the regulations placed on regular broadband.
First, I should point out that the nation's providers of broadband internet have a shockingly high capacity to influence which media you consume. This seems like an obvious point, but it often goes overlooked. The people controlling the pipes of the internet are uniquely situated to determine how you behave online, particularly now that (in many cases) the same people manning those pipes are also producing the content.
As such, they have the means and the interest to impel you to consume their content over that of other providers. The net neutrality rules are meant to stop them from doing that over the "regular" internet. That's where the Schminternet comes in.
Comcast announced in March that they were going to start offering their Xfinity on-demand video service through the Microsoft Xbox, and that consumers watching streaming video over their gaming console wouldn't have that data count towards their monthly cap of 250 gigabytes. The move necessarily favors their content over others -- if you're worried about bumping up on the data cap, you're not going to watch Netflix. The reason they can do this is because the data is traveling over Comcast's private network and not the "public internet," which means it's exempt from the FCC's net neutrality rules. But regardless of how it travels, the effect is the same: Comcast's online competitors are put at a competitive disadvantage. This is the Schminternet in action.
And guess what? It's already having an effect. Late last year, Sony made known that they were considering getting into the internet TV game, and had approached the big media players to talk licensing agreements. But yesterday afternoon Variety reported that Sony is hitting the brakes on the program out of concern over Comcast's streaming video scheme:
Michael Aragon, VP and GM of global video and music at Sony Network Entertainment, confirmed that his company is considering offering TV via broadband but is waiting for clarity on whether Comcast is allowed to provide consumers access to programming via its Xfinity app on the XBox platform without counting against the cable operator's bandwidth caps.
"These guys have the pipe and the bandwidth," said Aragon in an appearance Monday at Variety Entertainment & Technology Summit. "If they start capping things, it gets difficult."
Indeed it does get difficult. Because Comcast controls the pipes, produces the content, and uses the Schminternet to stack the deck in their favor.