How net neutrality affects PC gamers
On Tuesday, the US Court of Appeals in D.C. waved its gavel at the Federal Communications Commision and handed down a disappointing verdict: the 2010 Open Internet Order is unlawful. In other words, net neutrality just took a big right hook to the jaw.
Net neutrality taking a beating isn't going to stop you from playing Battlefield, or prompt restrictive bandwidth caps overnight that make it harder to download games from Steam. Tuesday's decision likely won't affect your day-to-day gaming at all.
But net neutrality is still something you should care about. If you've ever streamed a game on Twitch, followed an amazing speedrunning event like Awesome Games Done Quick, or watched a YouTube archive of a world record solo eggplant run in Spelunky, Tuesday's ruling could impact elements of the PC gaming community you care about.
Net neutrality typically serves as an all-encompassing rallying cry for Internet users and civil rights activists afraid that phone and cable companies are going to trample all over them. It's an important cause—we don't want Internet providers controlling where we browse—but because net neutrality can refer to so many issues, it can be hard to know exactly how it affects our day-to-day use of the Internet.
The common carrier rule
"Neutrality" broadly refers to keeping the Internet an even field for everyone. When you sign up for an Internet package, you can visit any website you want. Nothing is blocked or throttled. Perhaps most importantly, net neutrality is meant to prevent companies like Comcast from interfering with the competition (like throttling Netflix's bandwidth while making sure Comcast's XFINITY On Demand comes in crystal clear).
Those protections are now gone. Here's the key quote from the court's judgement on the Open Internet Order, which codified the FCC's neutrality rules in 2010:
"...though the Commission has general authority to regulate in this arena, it may not impose requirements that contravene express statutory mandates. Given that the Commission has chosen to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers, the Communications Act expressly prohibits the Commission from nonetheless regulating them as such. Because the Commission has failed to establish that the anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules do not impose per se common carrier obligations, we vacate those portions of the Open Internet Order."
The FCC has been treating ISPs as common carriers, ruling that they're not allowed to interfere with or prioritize the traffic flowing across their networks. But it didn't actually classify them as common carriers. Ars Technica calls this wishy-washy rulemaking, explaining "The FCC has avoided calling ISPs common carriers for more than a decade, favoring a 'light touch' regulatory approach that could protect consumers while (hopefully) appeasing political foes of net neutrality."
The court decided that the FCC had the "general authority" to regulate Internet networks, but since it didn't classify broadband providers as common carriers, it can't make specific rules preventing traffic discrimination or blocking. With that key piece of the Internet Order tossed out, ISPs are now free to prioritize data as they see fit.
Trouble for streamers
Why does the FCC's common carrier blunder matter for gaming? Realistically, we don't see a grimdark storm of ISP tyranny on the horizon—Comcast would lose tons of customers if it split off a site like Twitch as an HBO-style upgrade. They're more likely to charge data-hungry services like Netflix, YouTube, and Twitch more money to reach us.
Ars Technica writes that Tuesday's ruling "would allow pay-for-prioritization deals that could let Verizon or other ISPs charge companies like Netflix for a faster path to consumers." In other words, Netflix would have to pony up for guaranteed throughput, and if it didn't, its packets may end up in an Internet highway traffic jam. Video streams would pause to buffer more often or struggle to maintain HD quality.
If Netflix has to pay more to transmit its data, that cost will likely be passed on to customers. The same goes for Twitch and YouTube. Even Steam could be affected if it continues to grow. In September, Gabe Newell claimed that updates for popular games like Dota 2 generate 2-3 percent of global Internet traffic.
Maybe all this just means more ads. Maybe it means new subscription fees. Telecoms now have more power, and one way or another, we'll probably end up paying them more money.
The FCC could appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, but there's a real chance it will wait to see how things play out. In December, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that he was okay with ISPs charging Netflix more for an Internet fastlane. As The Verge points out in a biting editorial, Wheeler could take steps to reclassify ISPs as common carriers, giving the FCC the power to regulate them much more strictly. But doing that would essentially be standing up in front of lobbyists with billions of dollars to spend and taunting "Come at me bro." The FCC isn't about to pick a fight with all 172 members of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.
Wheeler said he's confident that the market will take care of itself. And, presumably, he's okay with the average Internet user, the kind that plays games and streams video every week, paying whatever price the market decides on.