Everyone is talking about net neutrality these days, on each end of the spectrum. Regulation will fix it! Regulation won't fix it! The end of times! To be honest, content companies and internet service providers alike would like nothing more that to make their margins wider, and nothing will stand in the way of profit.
This week, I want to take a look at some of the potential issues and hypothetical situations that could come about as a result of an internet that lives under the watchful eye of a filter. Preferring some internet packets over another could one day be a huge problem for MMO creators, because so much of the business is dependent on your information getting from one place to another at a speedy clip. Yes, I am aware that ISPs already use deep packet inspection to make sure the internet works, period, but we're talking about a world where anything goes, where regulation lets internet service providers play their own game.
What is net neutrality, anyway?
The words net neutrality come up all the time, especially in the United States in the last few months as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved to ban cable television and telephone providers from stopping access to websites favoring a competitor or places like Netflix. Net neutrality, as a phrase, is kind of terrible because it's fairly boring and take a little bit too much time to explain. Suffice it to say, net neutrality's main aim is that all packets are created equal -- internet traffic should be created equally. Then there are the separate classifications of net neutrality, some with quality of service provisions and blah blah blah. That's not our concern for this article. However, treating data equally is.
Remember last week?
We still haven't figured out or seen a fix for the issues that many Time Warner Cable, Brighthouse and some other service providers were having with World of Warcraft data being transmitted across their networks. For many people, this has been a huge inconvenience that has suspended their play, forced them out of raid nights, or generally made them upset at their play situation. We still don't know the reason behind the lag on these networks, but a lot of signs point to an issue on AT&T's level 3 jump on traceroutes. The interesting thing, however, is that I tried using Smoothping, a service that uses SSH tunneling to potentially give you better latency, and the problem cleared up, bypassing the deep packet inspection that was going on beforehand. The problem, however, still goes unfixed.
So let's get into the realm of the hypothetical because, frankly, I like this realm. Hypotheticals give us ways to explore potential issues. Here's the most grim I could imagine when it comes to MMOs.
World of Warcraft is owned and operated by Activision Blizzard, and for the most part runs pretty well on most networks. World of Warcraft is the biggest MMO in the United States, hands down, and most of the MMO traffic out there is probably associated with WoW. What happens then, if a cable provider like Comcast purchases a game company? More specifically, what happens if a provider like Comcast purchases a game company that specializes in MMOs?
In our grim hypothetical, we now have an internet service provider that owns a game company that wants to put out an MMO to rival World of Warcraft. To add as a disincentive to play World of Warcraft, Comcast inspects packets belonging to World of Warcraft and places them in a priority queue well below packets belonging to its own MMO, World of Comcast. If you, as a consumer, do not have much choice in internet service provider (many of us still don't), you get to deal with the unfortunate consequence of Comcast's lowering the priority of your data because it wants to sell a different service to you. The provider could always hide behind the veil of MMOs taking up too much bandwidth and the need for some kind of filter, but I think those concerns would fall on deaf ears.
As MMO gamers, we take up a lot less bandwidth than you think. Sure, it isn't negligible, but it is definitely not the highest in the business. We aren't the bandwidth hogs of the internet, that's for sure. But that's just one potential issue that could creep up. People were scared of what would happen when Comcast bought NBC -- a content provider purchasing a major content creator could spell doom and gloom for any other content creators on that distribution network. We still don't know the ramifications of such a deal, as everyone watches on as the rules and stipulations of the acquisition are hammered out.
The real purpose of writing about hypotheticals and net neutrality is that we want to be talking about the issues at stake and educating people around us. As gamers and people keen on these issues, we are in a unique place to be teachers in all of this. The internet is our thing. A lot of you reading this article right now probably grew up in a world where the internet has existed in its current form for your whole life. A lot of you who just read that last sentence now feel old. Don't! Feel happy and enlightened that the internet is in your lives better than ever. As a community of WoW players and MMO enthusiasts, we need to have these issues on our minds as the people in control make decisions that affect our lives. Sure, it's a video game and it's our hobby, but that doesn't make it any less part of our lives.
As I finish up writing this piece, the real drive behind it starts to seep out. For me, this is all about fear -- a very specific kind of fear. When all is said and done, my latency problems, along with those of thousands of others on the ISP networks most affected, are not about seeing WoW packets as P2P packets. I don't want to be a victim of a company telling me what I can and cannot do with my internet connection. Sure, charge me a tiered service for bandwidth speeds. I'm fine with paying a little bit more as long as the base bandwidth speed is something functional and usable. I'm afraid that my fears will come true, and one day we'll get the news that all that lag was due to WoW packets being prioritized incorrectly because of some vast traffic-shaping conspiracy. Sadly, the last thing I want is to be correct.
This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at firstname.lastname@example.org.