How the FCC's net neutrality ruling could make piracy cool again

If the FCC's proposal to permit ISPs to charge content providers for premium network access becomes reality, piracy could become fashionable once again.

Streaming content over the internet has made online piracy irrelevant for a lot of people. Services like Netflix and Spotify are easier to navigate than illegal file-sharing services for most users, and they can use them without worrying about low-quality files, viruses, or attracting the attention of law enforcement.

Most importantly, streaming services have been affordable enough to justify the convenience. An $8 monthly charge for Netflix is effectively negligible for constant access to a full library of content. This has been convincing enough to drive many users away from piracy services entirely. Netflix executives even admit that the company monitors piracy trends to identify which titles are being downloaded illegally in which regions, so the company can stream them in the areas to convert pirates into Netflix customers. A 2013 report from SandVine (PDF) shows that Netflix accounts for 28.18% of aggregate web traffic in North America; BitTorrent accounted for just 7.39%.

However, the FCC’s recent proposal to permit internet service providers to charge content companies for higher priority on their networks could eventually reverse that tide, the BBC reported recently.

"[There’s] a real possibility that you will price some people out of the market for legitimate programming and into a market for ill-gotten programming because it will just cost too much or it will become clear they can pay a lot less for it," Allen Hammond, director of the Broadband Institute of California, told the BBC.

Further pushing consumers toward illegal file-sharing services is their own helplessness in the matter. The net neutrality debate concerns whose responsibility it is to ensure consumers get the highest quality of services. Verizon has argued that growth in streaming services requires upgrades to the network in order to meet quality and availability demands.

"Other companies want us to spend our money to help supplement what they may be doing," Verizon spokeswoman Linda Laughlin says, according to the BBC.

Whatever agreement the companies on either side of the debate reach, it will have some kind of impact on customers. Netflix has recently announced plans to increase its subscription fees for new customers, with hints that a price hike could be on the horizon for existing customers too. If the FCC’s rulings end up forcing content providers to increase their prices, streaming services could lose the appeal that helped chip away at internet piracy.

"If people feel like this has gotten out of hand and power is controlled by too small a group of people [who think], 'My bills keep going up and up, I'm not going to tolerate that, I'm going to violate the law', the aggregate result is the law becomes unstable," Stuart Green, a professor at Rutgers School of Law, told the BBC. "[If] most people believe that the law is not consistent with their intuitions and beliefs about what's right and wrong, the law isn't really going to be effective. You can't have the FCC coming into people's homes and suing everybody. People just won't tolerate that."

Streaming has made the concept of ownership less relevant for consumers, but only because subscribing for access to content has emerged as the easiest way to obtain it. It’s created a happy middle-ground, where consumers steal content less but still access it for a reasonable price. If that price gets pushed too high, they’re just going to resort to the easier option.

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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