This morning, the FCC voted in a 3-2 decision to repeal the Internet’s designation as a Title II utility, doing away with net neutrality consumer protections. There has been an incessant amount of clamoring about this topic online, but for good reason—with these regulations no longer in place, this decision could destroy online gaming as we know it.
Net neutrality, in a basic sense, is the idea that an Internet service provider (ISP)—such as Verizon, Comcast, etc.—cannot charge consumers individually for access to specific websites, or block traffic to other websites unless the owner pays an additional fee. As many have pointed out, this creates a slippery slope that leads to things like “fast lanes” for websites that an ISP favors over others, or hindering access to a group of websites such as social media and placing them behind a paywall. A useful example already exists in Portugal, where there are no net neutrality protections to speak of and wireless provider Meo charges for specific sets of sites.
So what does this mean for gamers?
“Hypothetically, Comcast or any of the ISPs could introduce a “Premium Gaming Plan” that gives you high-speed access to your favorite services like Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, Steam, etc.,” writes James Brightman of Gamesindustry.biz. This could easily apply to websites like Twitch and Discord, which could be easily grouped into such a gaming plan. Additionally, bandwidth in online games may be far less egalitarian than they already are, with individuals subject to throttling based on their payment tier.
Aside from gamers, content producers in the gaming world stand to lose just as much—maybe even more. As Omar Dariani, founder of the Online Performers Group, told Polygon, “I view it as an existential threat to [streamers’] livelihoods.” The possibility exists that your favorite streamer may have to pay an additional fee to have their traffic accessible to everyone—and then, in turn, charge the individuals for their access to the stream. For consumers, it’s bad. But for small online business and websites—like MXDWN Games, for example—this could be a life-threatening issue.
While these “plans” and “packages” may not roll out today, ISPs have already walked back their protection promises, and it would be puzzling for lobbyists to have paid over a hundred million dollars to Congress if this wasn’t what they were after. As of this morning, the battle for a free and open Internet has hit an all-time low. It will take the constant raising of affected voices and a serious amount of political engagement to get these protections reinstated, but the gaming community is a close-knit and vast one. Just like Link constantly rises up to force Ganon back down again—even after he’s already conquered Hyrule—we can lose a battle but still win the war.