Should the Internet Play Favorites?
Your favorite Web sites may be relegated to the Internet's slow lane if the companies that run its backbone network have their way. Proposed services from telecommunications and cable companies would let ISPs and other Web businesses pay extra to receive preferential treatment for their data packets carrying everything from video to music to text over the Internet. Such packet prioritization would deliver a more responsive Web to those sites' visitors--a valuable perk for high-bandwidth services like streaming video.
Prioritizing content based on type--meaning giving first crack at available bandwidth to services that need a quick, uninterrupted data flow, such as streaming media--is supported by both consumers and content providers. But charging the providers extra for special delivery of these packets is opposed by some Internet firms and consumer groups.
A Threat to Innovation, Competition?
Critics argue that the scheme goes against a basic tenet of the Internet, that all packets are treated equally. They claim that prioritization will allow established firms with deep pockets to stack the virtual deck against smaller, potentially innovative competitors. Critics also fear that qualifying Internet traffic paves the way for telecom and cable providers to lock out certain companies and services--for example, those offering competing Voice-over-IP services or audio and video downloads.
Telecoms and cable firms counter that the proposal does no such thing. "We will not block, impair, or degrade content, applications, or services," said Walter B. McCormick Jr., president and CEO of the U.S. Telecommunications Association, when he testified before a Senate committee earlier this year. Those who favor prioritization argue that such services will give incentives to the telecom and cable firms--by giving them a new revenue stream--to upgrade their networks, which will boost overall service quality.
Both sides are lobbying Congress and the Federal Communications Commission. Those in favor of packet prioritization want no change to existing laws, while opponents want to codify network neutrality principles in new telecom legislation to ensure that all Internet packets remain on equal footing. A bill proposed in March, the Internet Non-Discrimination Act of 2006, would ensure network neutrality and expressly forbid companies from favoring the transmission of data from sibling companies. The bill's passage is uncertain, however, and recent drafts of the overhauled telecom laws do not appear to include these protections.
Control and Cost
Network operators are looking to recoup the cost of the fiber-optic cable and other infrastructure pieces that make a high-speed Internet possible. They argue that the upgrades are necessary to deliver such innovations as high-definition video-on-demand and high-quality teleconferencing. They expect businesses and consumers to share the cost of network upgrades. The current hands-off regulatory approach has let the Internet thrive, according to the operators, who insist that market competition would prevent abuse of packet prioritization by their industry.
Opponents allege that discrimination is not only more than theoretical, but has already occurred. Vonage CEO Jeffrey A. Citron said before the Senate committee that smaller network operators had blocked his company's VoIP service so it could not compete for phone customers in the regions those operators covered. Citron also said that businesses already pay for bandwidth, and that additional charges are basically double-billing.
New technology, such as the forthcoming IPv6, a new Internet standard with built-in packet prioritization, may mandate a tiered Internet. But telecoms and cable firms hope prioritized Internet traffic arrives much sooner.
However, with broadband competition often limited in many areas to one DSL and one cable provider, Kenneth DeGraff, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the nonprofit consumer group that publishes Consumer Reports, warns that we need to protect network neutrality so as to "avoid a world where telephone and cable wires get to decide what you get over the Internet versus you telling those wires what you want."
Buying a Way Into Your Inbox
In a move seen as yet another threat to Internet neutrality, America Online and Yahoo say they'll charge bulk e-mailers for guaranteed delivery of their messages to AOL and Yahoo inboxes.
The companies will use the third-party e-mail accreditation system called Goodmail CertifiedEmail to allow bulk e-mail to bypass their own filters, which typically block some 80 percent of junk mail before it enters an ISP's network.
Because CertifiedEmail would be visually distinguished as approved mail, order transactions, newsletters, and marketing messages would neither be mistaken by recipients as spam or identity theft ploys nor be accidentally blocked by an ISP's e-mail filter, says AOL spokesperson Nicholas Graham. Yahoo says it will use the Goodmail program only for transactional messages, such as bank statements and receipts.
An 'E-Mail Tax'?
Many in the Internet community give the plan a resounding thumbs-down. Fifty nonprofits, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Gun Owners of America, MoveOn.org Civil Action, and the Association of Cancer Online Resources, are pressuring AOL to quash what they call the "e-mail tax."
Critics insist that charging for access to inboxes could hurt small businesses and Internet retailers who can't afford to pay the fees. "Those who did not pay would increasingly be left behind with unreliable service," says Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org. For nonparticipants, the existing get-past-the-spam-filters game would continue.
Goodmail charges bulk e-mailers $2 to $3 per 1000 messages and claims to do background checks on its clients. Analysts say the system will have no measurable impact on cutting down spam volumes and will confuse recipients.