In the net neutrality hysteria that’s been going on for the past few weeks as the Federal Communications Commission, prepared to vote on broadband reclassification, one of the most horrifying of tales was that an ISP might block sites it doesn’t want you to see. Such things were a threat to freedom, advocates said.
What those advocates didn’t mention, either because they didn’t notice, or because it didn’t fit into their part of the hysteria, is that such blocking has been going on for a long time—years in some cases.
The blocking was carried out by three of the biggest sites on the internet which have been in a snit about how they divide up money earned from sales of various products on their websites, retail apps or via search engines.
Apple was annoyed with Amazon, because Amazon didn’t want to give Apple a cut from books sold through the Amazon mobile retail app on Apple devices. This was because Apple also sells books through its iBooks app. For some reason, this also translated into Apple refusing to allow Amazon Prime Video on Apple TV. Amazon, for its part, refused to sell Apple TV, because it competed with its Fire TV.
Meanwhile, Amazon and Google were having a similar snit. Amazon was refusing to sell Google’s Chromecast device because it competed with Fire TV. Because of this, Google prevented Amazon’s Echo Show devices from accessing YouTube on the web and served notice that it was going to block Fire TV devices from YouTube access starting in January. Amazon criticized Google for blocking access to a public website.
While Amazon and Google have settled their differences over Chromecast, Amazon still is still not selling Google Home, which is a direct competitor to Amazon’s Echo.
On the other hand, Amazon and Apple say they have made peace, but Amazon still doesn’t sell Apple TV despite announcements that the product would soon be sale on the Amazon retail website.
While it’s possible that the holiday rush has stripped Amazon’s virtual shelves of Apple TVs, I suspect it really means that Amazon simply isn’t selling them. On the other hand, it may be that Amazon is waiting until Apple puts the Prime Video app on Apple TV. However, Prime Video is available for iOS now, so perhaps there’s some other reason.
But there’s really a larger question here. Should the net neutrality provisions (whatever they are finally determined to be) apply to the big internet retailers? After all, for many, those big retailers have become a sort of shopping utility.
Should they be allowed to refuse to carry certain items simply because they compete with in-house products? Can blocking certain competitors’ video devices from access to a video website that is otherwise available to all be regarded as conforming to the letter or even the spirit of network neutrality?
Wouldn’t that be like the Safeway grocery chain refusing to carry Goya beans because it carries its own store brand of the same beans? It would, but it’s up to Safeway, or any other retailer, whether they carry a particular brand.
What this means is that despite Amazon’s position as the dominant online retailer, it’s still a private company and it can sell what it wants. After all, there is competition. You can go to the Lowes home improvement website and order a Google Home—at a discount.
So here we are with the mere concept of site blocking creating huge crowds of protesters in Washington and elsewhere in the country without any evidence that the things they’re afraid of will ever happen. After all, the big ISPs have said they won’t do it.
But meanwhile, site blocking is going on outside of the big ISPs and yet there’s no outrage. The fact that Google has been blocking YouTube from Amazon devices for several weeks seems to generate no interest at all from the same advocacy groups that are decrying the loss of net neutrality.
The good news is that Apple, Amazon and Google have apparently figured out that this squabble is really stupid. It’s hurting their customers; it’s not helping them and it’s demonstrating that even really smart internet innovators can act like idiots.
But acting like an idiot is something that a business is allowed to do. It may make them more vulnerable to their competition; it may send their customers elsewhere; and it may hurt their own revenues, but they’re allowed to do it.
Which brings us back to the net neutrality situation. The ISPs are also private businesses. Should they be regulated in a way that other businesses also on the internet are not?
Like so many things, the answer is a firm maybe. With Amazon and the others in their collective snits, there was a choice. If you wanted to buy a Google Home, you could get it somewhere besides Amazon. If you wanted to watch Amazon Prime, you didn’t need to use an app on Apple TV. The same is true with YouTube.
But this isn’t true with internet service access. More than half of American homes and businesses have only one choice of internet provider and that means that they can’t just go elsewhere.
If regulation isn’t the answer, the other choice is competition. If the FCC is going to decline to regulate then it should be up to the FCC in concert with Congress to pave the way for real competition. That process and some common-sense legislation are the real ways to support the growth of a free internet.