Mountain View's tech startups are girding themselves for a big political fight over the data vital to their businesses. Smaller web companies say they could be crippled by slower bandwidth while premium data service is reserved for the large tech giants.
The issue is net neutrality, the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally. These rules prohibit internet service providers such as Comcast and AT&T from discriminating against certain types of data traffic.
But these protections are now under attack by a new proposal being spearheaded by the Federal Communication Commission. Last month, the FCC launched a lengthy process to no longer classify internet service as an essential telecommunications utility, basically undoing protections put in place in 2015 under the Obama administration. Dubbed "Restoring Internet Freedom," this FCC action is being touted by internet service providers as a way to slice through burdensome regulation.
On Monday morning, Rep. Anna Eshoo met at Mozilla's Evelyn Avenue headquarters in Mountain View to convene a roundtable of start-up entrepreneurs and lawyers who have been closely monitoring the net-neutrality policies. Eshoo framed the issue as maintaining a level playing field for web companies.
"I don't see this as a partisan issue at all," she told the group. "I'm proud of the companies that were grown here and are now recognized as giants, but we have to allow new companies to be born."
Absent from the meeting were the obvious Silicon Valley tech juggernauts such as Google, Netflix and Facebook. Instead, the room was packed with folks from nascent companies including Arch Systems, rollApp and VersaMe. The meeting specifically focused on stakeholders from small startups that wouldn't have a large advocacy presence in Washington, D.C., according to the congresswoman.
If the proposed changes go forward, the internet as we know it would come to resemble cable TV, said Gigi Sohn, a Mozilla fellow who previously served as an FCC attorney. Like cable TV, service providers would offer different cost tiers for service, and companies with more money could pay for faster bandwidth, putting them at an advantage, she said.
Earlier this month, Netflix's CEO Reed Hastings admitted as much at the Recode tech conference. Hastings said net neutrality wasn't a big priority for Netflix since the company is large enough to negotiate the deals it needed. About a week later, the company issued a press statement that emphasized commitment to net neutrality protections.
"The internet has been the most democratic of services, but all of that is under threat if the big guys or gals can pay for faster service," Sohn said. "This is really about whether the FCC will have oversight over access to the most important network of our lifetime."
Exactly what these rule changes would mean for smaller startups is unclear. It could mean a slight increase in latency, like a couple milliseconds when loading a webpage, said Andrew Scheuermann, CEO of Arch Systems. But that slowdown could snowball into clear lag for services that require pulling data packets from a variety of sources, he said. Others at the meeting worried the rule-change would have a chilling effect on investors.
Right now, the FCC's proposed action remains in a public-comment period, which is set to close on July 17. So far, the public interest in the issue is unprecedented -- the FCC has reportedly received about 5 million comments, leading some to believe it may be the largest example of citizens contacting their government in U.S. history.
Net neutrality advocates are planning a "Day of Action" on July 12 to protest the planned deregulation.
A video of the net neutrality roundtable can be found on Mozilla's website
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Gigi Sohn.