Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Net Neutrality

Imagine the following scenario: You turn on your computer to do a little online research. You point your browser to Google and … nothing. Or, perhaps you get a message telling you that your Internet service provider and Microsoft have entered into an exclusive arrangement whereby only Microsoft’s Bing search service is available to users connected via that ISP. Or maybe you try to go online to pay your Sprint bill via your AT&T DSL line only to find that AT&T has blocked access to the websites of its competitors through its Internet services. Or what if your ISP is also your cable company and they decided to block access to TiVo’s servers in order to get you to subscribe to the cable company’s DVR services? Maybe it isn’t quite that blatant. Maybe your Hulu videos are just really, really slow (because your ISP has an exclusive deal with CBS) or some websites for some businesses seem to open much faster than others. Or what if an article in your local newspaper that was critical of your DSL provider just wouldn’t load in your browser?

Would any of that seem fair?

If not, then you believe in what is usually called “net neutrality”. The concept is simple: Internet service providers cannot limit access to or favor certain content online. Users pay Internet service providers for a certain amount of bandwidth to connect to the Internet, but how that bandwidth is used is entirely up to the user.

But there is a move, sponsored by many large telecom companies (and their right-wing friends) to change this. They want to allow telecom companies to have some degree of control over what goes through their system. At its most benign, the idea touted by the telecom industry would allow for telecom companies to offer a faster connection to the websites of companies that paid Comcast a premium to be on their faster tier. If the company paid, its websites would load quickly; if it didn’t pay full price, its websites would load more slowly; and if it didn’t pay at all? Well, who knows?

Of course the Internet service provider could also slow down its primary access system to the point that website owners and Comcast’s customers would essentially be forced to pay for the faster tier. And what if Comcast entered into an exclusive agreement with Microsoft that Bing would be the only search engine permitted on the fast tier or that TiVo programs couldn’t download because the ISP had its own DVR available for rent?

Others in the telecom industry have advocated even greater control over the Internet, to the point that the examples that I describe above would be possible.

The telecom industry argues that they should have this right as a component of free enterprise and because the telecom industry is responsible for the wires that transmit information into our homes and businesses. “We own it, so we should control what’s in it…” or something like that. While that point may have some degree of appeal to it, there are three things worth remembering: First, while the telecom companies may be the proverbial on-ramps to the Internet (the old “information superhighway” metaphor), they don’t actually have anything do with the Internet itself. Third, it was our government tax dollars that actually developed the backbone of the Internet, not the telecom companies. Finally, at least for most Americans, the number of potential Internet service providers (especially in homes) is extremely limited. How many phone companies can offer DSL service to your home? How many cable companies can offer cable service to your home? Can you think of any other ISP that you could subscribe to other than your phone company or cable provider? Usually, we have two choices, one cable and one phone, both of which operate in virtual monopoly environments, often on the basis of government granted monopolies. And yet they want to be able to use their monopolies to make more money at our expense. Um, isn’t that one of the reasons that we’ve always believed that monopolies were bad?

Thinking back to the information superhighway metaphor, imagine how you would react if you drove to the mall only to be told that you couldn’t enter the parking lot unless you were driving a Toyota or if you were driving a Hyundai you had to park in the remote lot. Or perhaps, imagine your outrage if you showed up to an NFL game and the ticket taker told you that you couldn’t enter the stadium wearing your team’s jersey because it was made by Nike instead of Reebok or that those people wearing Adidas shoes could only sit in the upper deck, notwithstanding your ticket for a club seat in the 10th row.

Without net neutrality, the Internet could begin to look an awful lot like that. Or maybe it would just look like it does in places like China where Internet users routinely cannot access certain websites or even whole types of content. Just imagine if the ISPs decided to slow down or restrict access to websites that supported a particular political party, candidate, or issue.

Oh, one more thing worth noting: People like Glenn Beck have been spouting off about the idea of net neutrality being a threat to free speech and being some kind of “Marxist plot”. Either he (and those like him) simply don’t understand net neutrality or they’re lying to you to serve the best interests of the telecom industry. I know which of those two theories I suspect to be true.

So, next time you hear someone talking about net neutrality, listen to what they’re really saying. There is a lot of misinformation floating around, quite a bit of it intentional. And then ask yourself if you want the Internet to remain open and free or if you’d like your choices restricted and your costs increased. Then call you Senators and Congressional Representative and tell them that you support net neutrality.

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