The march for net neutrality continues
A battle has been raging in the US which goes to the very core of the Internet and the freedoms which enshrine it. On the one hand is the idea that the Internet flourishes as a place free from regulation. On the other is the principle of 'network neutrality', whereby ISPs should transfer data (and get paid for it) without any regards to what that data actually is - and that regulation is needed to ensures its survival. Increasingly the major US cable and telecoms companies, such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner are seeking - as carriers of the Internet's traffic - to effectively act as gatekeepers, deciding which Web sites go fast or slow and which won't load at all; all based on who pays them the most money.
The US Congress is currently revising the US telecommunications Act. The Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006 will water down the principle of net neutrality considerably, and is opposed by six different bills opposing the potential creation of a two tier system - those who can pay for fast web access and delivery, and those who can't.
At the heart of the dispute is the fact that the US cable and telecoms companies - who risk losing much of their telephone revenues to services like Skype, and cable TV revenues to IPTV services such as Google, YouTube and VideoBomb - want to provide preferential (ie faster) access to companies who pay them more money. Conversely, competing services, such as free to use voice-over-IP products may be slowed down or prevented completely. To qutoe campaign group savetheinternet.com's website:
These companies have a new vision for the Internet. Instead of an even playing field, they want to reserve express lanes for their own content and services — or those from big corporations that can afford the steep tolls — and leave the rest of us on a winding dirt road.
And the issue isn't just about who pays money, it can form a type of corporate censorship. In 2005, Canada's telephone giant Telus blocked customers from visiting a Web site sympathetic to the Telecommunications Workers Union during a contentious labor dispute. And in April this year, Time Warner's AOL allegedly blocked all emails that mentioned www.dearaol.com -- an advocacy campaign opposing the company's pay-to-send e-mail scheme.
Network neutrality, a principle enshrined within the foundations of the Internet, holds that ISPs transport data without regard, preference or discrimination for the content. It is that very freedom, that has arguably lead to the web's success. Michael Geist, in an article for news.bbc.co.uk in December 2005 described the reasoning:
"Websites, e-commerce companies, and other innovators have also relied on network neutrality, secure in the knowledge that the network treats all companies, whether big or small, equally. That approach enables those with the best products and services, not the deepest pockets, to emerge as the market winners.
Internet users have similarly benefited from the
network neutrality principle. They enjoy access to greater choice in
goods, services, and content regardless of which ISP they use."
But all is not lost, for it is an issue which seems to have united a remarkably diverse bunch of organisations. From Internet and web founders Vint Cerf and Tim Berners Lee, through to thousands of blogers and cosumer rights groups from Moby and Michael Stipe to The Christian Coalition, who have bandied together under the www.savetheinternet.com campaign. Even most of the big web corps are on board with the unlikely allaince of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, eBay and a few other majors behind the www.dontmesswiththenet.com campaign.
Some say that the issue is simply moving the goalposts of neutrality - Google's search results are powered by unknown proprietary algorythms and as such the company, like Microsoft and Yahoo, has a huge influence over which content is easy to find - and which isn't - which in a future of networked media distribution puts them in pretty powerful positions as potential censors. Time will tell how all the companies involved handle the responsibility - and how long the internet's users, a powerfully informed body of people, indulge any abuse of the web's freedoom.