US & Canada

Could new net neutrality rules fuel piracy?

A protester wearing an Anonymous Guy Fawkes mask takes part in a demonstration in Zagreb, Croatia, on 11 February 2012 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Experts argue higher internet fees may result in more consumers turning to pirated content

Many consumers were outraged with the news that the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was possibly considering new rules allowing net providers to charge more for access to an online fast lane.

People decried the perceived death of open communication, the potential rising costs of access, and perhaps, most importantly, how they would access streaming episodes of favourite programmes like Breaking Bad and House of Cards.

The insatiable demand for streaming content has choked US networks, causing internet service providers (ISPs) to attempt to spread the cost of upgraded service to content providers like Netflix.

According to reports, the FCC will allow a fast lane for data-heavy services when new rules are published in May. Critics say this violates the so-called "net neutrality" principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally.

If such growing costs trickle down to consumers, experts believe a life of internet piracy may seem appealing for those accustomed to cheaper access.

There's "a real possibility that you will price some people out of the market for legitimate programming and into a market for ill-gotten programming because it will just cost too much or it will become clear they can pay a lot less for it," says Allen Hammond, director of the Broadband Institute of California.

Already more than 11% of all internet traffic is believed to be illegally shared, copyrighted content such as films and television episodes, according to a report commissioned by NBC Universal.

ISPs like Verizon have acknowledged that video streaming demand has grown exponentially in recent years, eating up to half of bandwidth. And upgrades to current networks can prove very costly.

"Other companies want us to spend our money to help supplement what they may be doing," Verizon spokeswoman Linda Laughlin says.

As ISPs negotiate with content providers like Netflix, service has sometimes slowed to a near unusable speed for certain customers.

In short, some people are paying for streaming services they are not always receiving.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption ISPs have been in talks with content distributor Netflix to negotiate new pay agreements

For ethicist Irina Raicu, it presents an unusual dilemma in which turning to pirating of content may not be, technically, wrong.

"If you are actually paying and using [piracy sites] in desperation, I don't think it's unethical," she says, but adds that content creators may be hurt more than ISPs in the bargain.

Film studios concur, arguing internet piracy costs them millions of dollars in lost revenue every year.

"I think it just speaks to the way consumers are just pushed to the limit here," Ms Raicu says. "In a world where people feel like the big companies are allowed to act unethically and without any kind of regulations, I think it's more likely to prompt people to respond the same way."

Ms Raicu says the argument is part of the ongoing net neutrality debate in the US. Is the internet a human right, or a business to be controlled by market forces?

Many have argued the US government should treat the internet as a public utility rather than the oligopoly it is today.

A low number of ISPs control the bulk of the market, and in some areas of the nation there is only one ISP available.

And if you don't like their practices, well… tough.

Under such a system, customers don't have the ability to modify contracts or hold their ISP accountable, says Mr Hammond.

"Businesses are providing service based on a contract that is written from their point of view," he says. "We have [no room] to negotiate."

If no statutes are written to protect consumer rights, then customers are bound to the terms of the contract. It becomes a take-it-or-leave-it system.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The demand for streaming video has grown exponentially in recent years, experts say

And right now the US government appears less than eager to enter into the fray.

"If Congress wants to impose net neutrality, it can," says Aaron Schwabach, professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

But "I doubt that Congress could agree to adopt a national pancake right now", he says, referencing the recent paralysing political polarisation in the US House of Representatives and Senate.

Mr Schwabach also notes that those same politicians are beholden to the ISPs - often part of larger media conglomerates - for access to constituents come voting season.

"These corporations are pretty large and pretty well-versed and [also] have their people up on Capitol Hill" lobbying, echoes Mr Hammond. "And they have long memories and deep pockets."

When individual consumer Davids are up against corporate and government Goliaths, turning to piracy may some day become a form of social protest, experts argue.

"We have anti-monopoly laws, we have regulation because we don't want to have too much concentration of power in too few hands," says Stuart Green, a professor at Rutgers School of Law.

"I think people feel like at a certain point they have to correct what the government or the market won't correct," he adds. "When a government or oligopoly controls all of the wealth, then sometimes people have to break the law in order to change the status quo as an agent of social change."

Even if such internet piracy is a self-serving desire for free access to the Iron Man films and not pure altruism, if enough people do it, it may render the illegality of it moot.

"If people feel like this has gotten out of hand and power is controlled by too small a group of people [who think], 'My bills keep going up and up, I'm not going to tolerate that, I'm going to violate the law', the aggregate result is the law becomes unstable," Mr Green says.

"[If] most people believe that the law is not consistent with their intuitions and beliefs about what's right and wrong, the law isn't really going to be effective," he adds. "You can't have the FCC coming into people's homes and suing everybody. People just won't tolerate that."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is said to be behind proposed guidelines allowing net providers to charge more for faster access

But, if internet rules continue to change, ISPs may be able to block access to illegal content download sites for fear of being sued by content creators.

Basically, just as people may be turning more to piracy, pirate sites will be driven to extinction.

"That should reduce the incidents of illegal downloading because it won't be technologically possible," says Mr Green.

"Or people will find new ways to get around it."

Mr Schwabach notes that, when he was in college, other people would take turns purchasing a vinyl record each week and allowed their classmates to re-record and distribute the music on cassettes.

The same is likely to hold true for the internet.

"Some people always find a way," he concludes.

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