invisible-appleApple is reportedly negotiating paid interconnection deals with a number of Internet service providers so it can better deliver software updates, applications, and other bandwidth-heavy miscellanies.

These deals would provide the company with better access to an Internet service provider’s network in exchange for a fee, which will allow Apple to deliver the items mentioned above faster than it could before, but might also attract the anger of net neutrality advocates.

Interconnection deals have attracted headlines over the last few months because of Netflix’s deals with Comcast, Verizon, and other Internet service providers. If the deals become more common they could create Internet “fast lanes” that would allow some companies to buy an unfair advantage over smaller companies that can’t afford to pay an ISP’s interconnection fees. They don’t violate existing net neutrality rules, much to the dismay of many who believe that the creation of a pay-to-play Internet would stifle innovation, but these deals are controversial.

This news follows an earlier report from the Wall Street Journal claiming that Apple is trying to forge similar relationships with ISPs so it can give a new streaming video service a leg-up over the competition. The discrepancy between paying for an unfair advantage over smaller companies (as the Journal’s report claims) and paying to make sure important updates reach customers faster than before (as today’s report states) shows that blanket dismissal of these interconnections deals isn’t nearly as black-or-white as people who oppose them might think.

The problem, as Gigaom’s Stacy Higginbotham points out, is that it’s hard to know what we should be angry about when deals like this are reported or announced because they’re often made in secret:

Thus, I’m waiting for the commission to start demanding data from all companies who have a stake in this issue: those that haven’t complained publicly; those that have complained through proxies; and those that apparently are happy to accept the status quo. Until that point, I think it’s a stretch to try to compare Apple’s apparent acceptance of paying for direct interconnections to Netflix’s frustration with the practice. From here it’s like comparing apples to oranges. To find the right comparisons we’re going to need actual data, and then we can figure out if Netflix is just whining or is instead a canary warning us about an important connection point for the internet getting choked off by ISPs.

These deals directly affect the experience many consumers have when they try to stream a video, download an application, or an install a security update. Netflix can use these deals as a weapon against smaller companies that can’t make similar arrangements; Apple can use them to make sure that its users don’t spend hours watching a progress indicator as they download the newest version of its mobile operating system. One obviously harms consumers, while the other makes their lives a little easier. So how should these deals be scrutinized and regulated?

That’s a difficult question without a simple answer. The Federal Communications Commission is currently trying to protect consumers by changing its net neutrality rules, but it’s not going to address deals like these — a fact that many activists have criticized over the last few months. Maybe that’s because the agency doesn’t believe that these deals threaten the free Internet, as myself and others have argued since its proposed rules were leaked earlier this year; maybe it’s because the FCC can’t handle text messages, let alone nuanced issues affecting the Internet.

Either way, it’s clear that there is no easy way to resolve the problems caused by these deals, at least until we know what to argue about. Companies like Comcast want to make deals like this because they are happy to stifle innovation and ruin the Internet for a quick buck. Companies like Netflix and Apple want to make them for other reasons, and until we know what they are, we’re going to live with ambiguity and a vague sense of concern for the free Internet’s future.

[image adapted from Liam Andrew Cura]