Why We Need “Network Neutrality” (part 1)

“Network neutrality” is concept whereby all data packets (and devices) are treated equally on a computer network. In laymen’s terms, a “network neutral” ISP would not discriminate between basic web surfing, email traffic, streaming video traffic, P2P traffic, VoIP traffic, podcast traffic, instant messaging traffic, and so on. Each and every data packet would be treated exactly the same, regardless of where it comes from or what it contains. If this sounds like the basic definition of “the Internet” to you… well, you’d be right.

As it stands now, most ISPs in the US are running more or less neutral networks. But this might not be the case tomorrow, or the next day. And although a few large US ISPs are currently experimenting with ditching network neutrality as it relates to illicit file trading, these same ISPs have, in the not too distant past, discussed grandiose plans for shattering the Internet as we know it. It’s called “tiered service”.

Basically, ISPs want to charge websites and content providers to allow “guaranteed delivery” of their content. If a content provider can’t (or won’t) pay these “quality of services fees”, then their data will be pushed to “the back of the bus”. While it doesn’t sound like a terribly bad idea at first, the end result of these fees would be a disaster for end users and content providers. Content providers would have to negotiate such fees with any ISP that wished to implement tiered service; although most US Internet users are serviced by a handful of giant ISPs, there are still thousands of small ISPs that content providers would have to negotiate with. Such fees would also cut deeply into the bottom lines of many content providers. So your favorite podcast or streaming audio\video site might simply choose to shut down rather than pay out the nose for something they’ve had for free for years. “Mom and Pop” Internet sites and blogs might cease to exist entirely. Start-up companies developing new and innovative Internet technologies would see their products langish for lack of funds to pay an “ISP tax”. Some companies might choose to leave the U.S. altogether for “network neutral” countries in Europe or Asia. And of course, ISPs could enter into agreements with certain companies that give them kickbacks… so Comcast could have a “preferred online bank” that loads much faster than some other online bank that doesn’t pay the ISP tax or enter into a licensing agreement with Comcast. Imagine a world where Google refuses to enter into such an agreement with an ISP and refuses to pay the ISP tax… now imagine all your Google searches timing out and giving you errors while “Yahoo! Search Brought To You By Comcast” works beautifully. Or imagine if iTunes were to resist jumping on the tiered service bandwagon… suddenly your iTunes purchases take hours to download instead of seconds as they did before, and Comcast’s only solution is for you to sign up for their “ComcasticMusic” site… where tracks cost $2.99 each instead of 99¢ and have more draconian DRM than their Apple counterparts. THAT’S tiered service in a nutshell.

So far, I’ve only discussed “network neutrality” and “tiered service” in the… well, “neutral” sense of dollars and data capacity. But if you think that “tiered service” ISP won’t discriminate against sites or services that they have economic or political issues with… you have another thing coming. Comcast owns several cable channels, such as E! and Versus. Time Warner owns movie studios, print publications, record labels, and much more. Which websites do you think will work better with each ISP in a tiered model? Imagine if Amazon were to chose not to pay an ISP tax to Comcast… which online store do you think would work better for Comcast cable internet customers – Amazon or the E! Online store?

Lest you think I’m just pulling hypotheticals from thin air, check out the following incidents:

In August 2007, the band Pearl Jam performed at a Lollapalooza event. The band performed their hit “Daughter”, and it some point during the song, the tune morphed into a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall”… during which lead singer Eddie Vedder added the lines “George Bush, leave this world alone, George Bush, find yourself another home”. AT&T was doing a webcast of the event on its “Blue Room” streaming media page. AT&T censored Vedder’s anti-Bush lines in the webcast.

AT&T also implemented a draconian policy in the terms of service for its home Internet service:

AT&T may immediately terminate or suspend all or a portion of your Service, any Member ID, electronic mail address, IP address, Universal Resource Locator or domain name used by you, without notice, for conduct that AT&T believes… (c) tends to damage the name or reputation of AT&T, or its parents, affiliates and subsidiaries.

So basically, if you posted anything critical of AT&T on a website using their Internet service, they could fire you as a customer. AT&T claimed that the policy was almost never invoked and has since removed the policy, but just the fact that it was in there in the first place should give you the willies.

Although not exactly an “Internet issue”, Verizon Wireless earlier this year refused to allow pro-choice abortion group named NARAL to send SMS messages on its service. In a nutshell, the group wanted to create a “short code” SMS service (those “send a test to 55555” numbers you see in commercials). Each wireless carrier has to agree to the short code for the system to work properly. Although every other major US wireless operator agreed to create such a code for NARAL, Verizon didn’t. Verizon has since changed its mind, but it took a wave of massive publicity for them to do so.

Earlier this year, an elderly lady named Mona Shaw became a “folk hero” of sorts after smashing up a computer at a Comcast office. She’d been getting the same customer service runaround that most of us have gotten into before, and she simply couldn’t take it anymore. The reason I mention it here is because when Shaw appeared on Good Morning America to discuss the incident, the ABC affiliate suddenly (and mysteriously!) went blank on all Comcast cable customers TVs in her immediate area. Censorship? Or just an incredible coincidence? You tell me.

And then there’s Comcast’s Internet service…

To be continued

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