Chromecast, Net Neutrality and the Rise of New Gatekeepers

For the past few weeks, I’ve been enjoying starting to use my new Chromecast.  For those who don’t know, Chromecast is Google’s new internet-video-to-tv device — plug it in, then stream web content from any device to your TV.

The Chromecast experience has been eye opening, and it perfectly illustrates the opportunity and challenges we’re facing in terms of broadband and content policy.

First: the experience — we’ve been watching Netflix and Google Play videos over Chromecast and the experience has been great. It has been a breath of fresh air to be able to push web content from any of my devices (phone, ipad, nexus7, computer) to the TV.  Especially with small kids, portable video content is super important.  And nothing drives me more nuts than buying a video (say, Wreck-it-Ralph) on one platform (Verizon FIOS at home) and then buying it again on another (Google Play). So being able to collect content online and push it to the TV wherever I am has been so so so nice.  

It also really helps that Chromecasts are priced at $35.  That way, I can buy as many as I need, and put them wherever I want — like at  my in-laws’ house, which I plan to do.

For me, this is perhaps the first experience that’s really proven the model of “over-the-top” video on TV.  Even with Boxee and Roku, I never got into a steady pattern of using them.  The fact that the Chromecast devices are cheap, and controlling them happens from any mobile device or computer really broadens the surface area of the experience.

So, this raises the question of competition.  Of course, Chromecast is a (welcome!) direct threat to video services offered by cable providers.  Already this is bearing true — I’m way less likely to buy an on-demand video from Verizon now.  So it’s perfect test case to think about Net Neutrality, which has been in the news this week, as Verizon and the FCC battle it out in court.

In a nutshell, the argument for net neutrality is that ISPs (like Verizon and Comcast), which currently have near monopoly positions in broadband service, are in a position to favor their own services in the face of this competitive threat.  So, for example, instituting data caps that apply to Netflix but not to video-on-demand; or by throttling web video.  To avoid this, providers like Netflix and Youtube could strike a special deal with the ISPs for “fast lane” service.  The net result of this would be a big blow to small innovators (“the next netflix|youtube”), who naturally wouldn’t be able to afford such fees.

The argument against net neutrality is that broadband providers have never been classified as “common carriers” (the classification that allowed similar rules to be placed on phone-based ISPs in the dial-up era), and aren’t subject to such rules.  Further, net neutrality assumes a monopoly environment that doesn’t exist (with the growth of mobile internet, mesh networks, etc.).  Instead, we should stay hands-off and let marketplace competition do the trick here.

Freedom is such a slippery issue.  One way of looking at the argument around net neutrality is about the freedom of ISPs to manage their services as they please, vs. the freedom to watch & participate (as consumers of media) and the freedom to publish (as producers of media).  Thinking about it through that lens, and taking the history of the internet thus far into account, my position is to favor creators and consumers.  The best thing about the internet is that everyone can become a creator — the smallest blog can become a news powerhouse, and the smallest side project can become the world’s biggest personal video platform.  This potential to start from nothing and reach millions of people is the heart of what makes the internet great and empowering.

With this issue heating up again, we’re starting to see more public discourse around it.  If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a pro-net-neutrality video, The Internet Must Go, that just launched last week:

And for some counter-arguments, here is TechFreedom’s commentary of the Verizon / FCC case.

Back to Chromecast for a sec: on top of all this, Chromecast introduces a new layer: for now at least, Chromecast appears to only work with “approved content partners” (so far, Netflix, Pandora), and Chromecast may be actively blocking some apps.  So this puts Google in a new type of gatekeeper position, though a less defensible one, since anyone can connect anything to their TV.  This is particularly interesting given how Google has begun to close up the Android ecosystem, but that’s a subject for another post.

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