A Gated Internet

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You fire up your computer and want to watch some clips of yesterday's game. You go to your favorite sports Web site, but pages are taking forever to load. Maybe you stick with it. More likely, however, you run out of patience and surf to another site to see if its video clips download any faster. Lo and behold, they do. The next time you're after some football highlights, the same thing happens. After a while, I bet you'd stop even trying your now ex-favorite sports site.

We've all encountered slowdowns at our favorite Web sites, much like highway traffic that goes from 70 miles per hour to 35 for no readily discernible reason and then speeds up again. Most of us curse a little, shrug, then go on with our days. But if certain Internet providers have their way, Web site slowdowns may soon not be all that mysterious, and may become far more frequent.

A number of telephone companies such as SBC/AT&T, Verizon and others have begun talking about offering a new prioritization service to Internet businesses. The general concept is simple: Pay the ISP some extra money, and the data packets to and from your Web site get priority. Your users will get the information they want faster, or perhaps they will enjoy a smoother online gaming experience, or they'll be able to make their purchases more quickly. Whichever the case, what business wouldn't want to deliver a better online experience to its customers?

The end result is laudable. The means to that end, however, is less so. Right now, the pipes that carry Internet data are not supposed to make any distinctions between those packets. The pipes are neutral. You and I pay for access and the speed of that access, while businesses and individuals who run their own Web sites pay for servers and the bandwidth required by whatever traffic they get.

Congress is currently wrestling with telecommunications reform. One of the questions on the table is whether to allow telecoms to prioritize packets in this way, or to keep Internet traffic neutral and make it illegal for them to do so. How legislators respond to this issue could help change the fundamental nature of the Internet and lead to a Web where only wealthy players get seen and heard.

Network Neutrality

Last year the Federal Communications Commission defined its general outlook on broadband deployment and access, spelling out the rights that Americans should have. These rights include being able to access the legal content they want; run the applications they want; connect the devices they want; and enjoy fair competition among service, application, and content providers. The FCC's statement does not have force of law, however, and its interpretation is broad. Some consumer advocates see agreement with network neutrality principles here, although FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said at the time that there was no need to codify such principles into law.

Network neutrality is not a new concept; it's been debated and bandied about for years. But it's been only recently that growth in broadband use and improvements in packet-analysis technology have made it worthwhile for ISPs to consider using the technology and creating new services out of it. (Incidentally, packet-analysis technology is likely used to help screen content in China and Saudi Arabia.)

Telecoms argue that they are not getting enough return for the tremendous investments they have made to lay down fiber-optic cables and otherwise pave the information highway. Content prioritization is just one more revenue stream they want to explore.

Priority for Sale?

The capitalist in me says, "Go for it." The consumer in me says, "Wait a minute." If ISPs truly need more revenue to cover the costs of deploying broadband networks (and let's give them that one, for the sake of argument), I can understand that they'd want to raise rates for Internet access and bandwidth use, or impose penalties for excessive bandwidth usage. In fact, many contracts already include such a provision; a Web site can be shut down if it goes over its bandwidth allocation. What I'm far less sanguine about is allowing ISPs any control over content, especially if that control comes with a price tag.

Large Web sites offer me most of what I want when I surf the Net. But smaller sites are typically the ones that offer innovative services or radical improvements on existing services. Would Google have grown to its current prominence if Yahoo had been able to pay ISPs to make its site run much faster? Perhaps, perhaps not. The pay-to-prioritize scheme automatically favors large, established players who already have a customer and revenue base and can afford the rates. What will we miss out on if smaller sites have even less chance of being seen?

Moreover, content prioritization can be taken much further. Since many ISPs offer services that compete with those of third-party vendors, it's no stretch to believe that, somewhere down the line, ISPs may also prioritize their own offerings and even lock out those of their competitors. It's easy to envision a world where, say, Verizon customers have fast access to Verizon Wireless's music store, but have a harder time getting consistent, fast performance when they go to Apple's iTunes. Voice-over-IP services are another case in point: Will customers be able to subscribe to Vonage if their ISP has its own VoIP service? Your ISP could become like your cell phone provider: You can call anyone you like, but there are certain music and video services that are only available (or only viable) from specific carriers.

Consumer advocacy groups Consumer Federation of America, the Consumers Union, and Free Press recently released results from a survey that indicates Americans want their Internet to remain neutral. These groups are lobbying Congress to incorporate network neutrality into law, while telecom firms are lobbying hard to prevent it.

Although I don't particularly want more regulations, I do think that in this case there is something worth protecting. The Internet's pipes are just that: pipes. They should not be turned into gates that wall in or restrict certain content while giving preferential treatment to other data. I want the content and services that I choose; I don't want my ISP limiting or handicapping my choices.

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