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Tech Lab

A rising tide of Internet regulation

Around the world, regulators and judges are tightening their grip on the Internet, with predictable results: chaos and confusion.

In the United States on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to announce its new rules for regulating Internet access.

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Meanwhile in Luxembourg, the European Court of Justice ordered Google Inc. to remove sensitive information about a man from its Web search index, declaring that people have a “right to be forgotten.”

Each issue offers limitless opportunities for mischief.

The FCC is grappling with the concept of “network neutrality,” basically the idea that Internet service providers such as Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. should treat all the data moving over their networks exactly the same. But some providers hope to create special “fast lanes” for Internet sites that would pay extra to get their content delivered to us quicker.

Think of the video service YouTube, and a new upstart service — call it JoeTube. YouTube, which is owned by Google, can easily afford to pay extra to get higher-speed delivery of its videos, so that they look better on our computers and TVs. JoeTube can’t afford fast-lane service and so is put at a permanent disadvantage.

This might prevent a young company from gaining an online foothold. But is that such a big deal? Some big online retailers offer free shipping; smaller rivals can’t afford to do the same. Nobody makes a federal case of it.

What’s really needed are incentives for newcomers like Google to bring its superfast Google Fiber network into more cities.

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But what if an Internet provider deliberately slowed traffic from companies that don’t pay for the premium service?

Or what if an Internet carrier stopped upgrading its “standard” service, leaving
it at the same mediocre level for years, while constantly improving the premium service?

Left to their own devices, the providers might well try such stunts. In 2012, Comcast decided that customers could stream unlimited amounts of Comcast’s own videos through Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox 360 consoles, but capped the amount they could get from other services, such as Netflix. It was Comcast discriminating against a competitor, and only a public backlash kept the company from following through.

More recently, Netflix elected to pay Comcast to pump its millions of data streams directly into Comcast’s Internet servers, a common Internet practice called “peering.” But Netflix opposes any FCC moves that would let Comcast or another Internet provider charge more for faster access to individual homes.

Advocates of Net neutrality want to forestall this by invoking an existing law that lets the FCC treat broadband providers as public utilities. The FCC could then order ISPs to provide the same standard of service to all comers.

But this means putting the hitherto free-wheeling Internet industry under federal control. Similar oversight of the telephone industry led to decades of technological stagnation and artificially high prices.

Remember “long-distance calls?” My kids don’t. The concept died in the 1990s. Calling from Boston to Los Angeles now costs the same as calling across the street. But that happened only after the phone industry was deregulated.

The Net neutrality debate obscures the real problem: no competition. If there were three or four nationwide broadband providers, none would dare abuse their power.

What’s really needed are incentives for newcomers like Google to bring its superfast Google Fiber network into more cities. It could also make sense for states and cities to build backbone networks, then lease them to private businesses, similar to what’s going on in Western Massachusetts. Until we get more Internet options, we may have to choose between overly broad federal regulation or overwhelming corporate greed.

Meanwhile, Europeans can now have their past embarrassments obliterated, at least from Internet search services.

The judges said that Google must stop linking to a news report from 1998 about a Spanish man’s financial difficulties. The story was true, and remains online, but now Google can’t index it, making it much harder to find.

The court agreed with the plaintiff that the story hurt his reputation and was old news, so Google should stop reminding people of it.

I sympathize; who wouldn’t?

There’s plenty I might wish to delete, like my long-ago prediction that Apple’s iMac computer would flop. But the court-ordered rewriting of history creeps me out. And how will Internet search services cope with a flood of similar requests? They could litigate each request. Or they could delete links on demand, even if that means depriving Internet users of accurate information.

There’s not much chance of a similar court ruling in the United States; ordering Google to delete information would surely violate the First Amendment. I’m not totally opposed to the idea of a clean slate. I’d like Facebook to automatically delete my posts when they hit a certain age, say five years. But let’s not make it mandatory. There’s already too much interference with the Internet — on both sides of the Atlantic.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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