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Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

Network Neutrality – A Fight for Literal Freedom of Information

 

It is a strange phenomenon of North American society that the fight for Freedom of Information should so often come down to money. Those who have it tend to get freer access to information than those who don’t. A small group of former monopolists (who have lots of it) can even control how information moves across the ‘net, even to the point of placing virtual toll booths across the formerly free-flowing information superhighway.

That’s the impression left after reading and rereading the 62-pages of legislation named the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006 (HR5252) and the attendant controversy surrounding its voyage through the US Congress.

Passed by a 269 – 151 vote in the US House of Representatives on Thursday July 8, HR5252 is ostensibly about permitting greater competition in the rapidly evolving television-signal delivery market by allowing the giant Telcos such as AT&T and Verizon to obtain a national broadcast license to compete with cable TV providers via the Internet. In other words, HR5252 is about allowing the Telcos to become cable TV companies.

On the surface, that makes sense. The Internet has cut into the profitability of the major Telcos in more ways than one. Email has reduced the need to make long-distance telephone calls. Instant messaging has replaced many local calls. The most recent advances allow cable companies offering VOIP services to, in effect, become start-up Telcos. Improving technologies also allow anyone with a web presence and a bit of talent to create their own television shows, movies, audio tracks and other forms of mass-communication entertainment and distribute their creations over lines owned by the Telcos. In short, the Internet has blurred the once obvious lines between the major Telcos and cable TV providers, the most significant of which is, of course, the bottom lines.

Between the lines and behind the scenes however, the bill will change the Internet as we know it today, granting Internet Service Providers both large and small with the ability to levy surcharges when consumers access file types assumed to consume too much bandwidth. This effectively creates the conditions for a multi-tiered Internet in which the “haves”, who can afford extra fees, get access to a wider and more powerful Internet than the “have-nots” who can’t afford the extra fees.

For the past ten years, the commercial Internet has been run in such a way that all data transferred across any pipeline is considered equal, regardless of the file type or content. Bandwidth charges are measured and levied by volume of bandwidth used, not by the format in which that data is coded. This is what the concept of Network Neutrality revolves around. HR5252 will change that, giving telecommunications giants the ability to charge extra fees for premium content passing through their pipes. Again, this content is currently considered “equal” to any other type of content.

That’s why content creators or distributors such as Google, Yahoo, IAC and eBay line up on one side of the debate against data-pipeline owners such as AT&T, Verizon and Bell South. The content creators have built business models around the “free” provision of electronic information while the pipeline owners have built much older business models around being able to control and charge for the flow of electronic information. Both sides have a lot to protect and both sides have a lot to lose. Caught between the two sides is the literally billions of Internet users around the world, all of whom will be affected by this legislation, even though the vast majority of them reside outside of the United States. The days of free flowing information suddenly appear to be numbered.

Voting on the bill followed party lines with Republicans tending to support the legislation and Democrats tending to oppose it. A last minute compromise proposed by the Democrats could have alleviated many of the concerns of content creators and distributors however it was voted down by a similar margin. Now that HR5252 has passed the House, the bill moves on to the Senate, which, being dominated by Republicans, is expected to pass the resolution.

Supporters of Net Neutrality have not given up. “Net Neutrality is as basic to the function of the Internet as non-discrimination is to the U.S. Constitution. We will win because we must.” – Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), sponsor of the defeated amendment to HR5252.

The original inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, added his voice to the debate last month saying, “When, seventeen years ago, I designed the Web, I did not have to ask anyone’s permission. The new application rolled out over the existing Internet without modifying it. I tried then, and many people still work very hard still, to make the Web technology, in turn, a universal, neutral, platform. It must not discriminate against particular hardware, software, underlying network, language, culture, disability, or against particular types of data. The Internet is increasingly becoming the dominant medium binding us. The neutral communications medium is essential to our society. It is the basis of a fair competitive market economy.”

Debate over who controls the Internet stretches back to the late 1990s to the second generation of innovative technologies that allowed consumers to make better or fuller use of information transmitted over the web. Think back to the early days of file sharing, gaming and emerging video applications. Many of those technologies did not exist in the early 1990s when the commercial Internet was being formulated and introduced to consumers. While these new technologies allowed for a fuller Internet experience and are correctly credited as being primary growth drivers, they also created an expensive situation for the Telcos and other data-stream providers. The Internet they signed up for was based on text and basic images, both of which require very little bandwidth.

The reaction from Internet Service Providers was swift and highly restrictive. A most famous case from the earlier days involved Cox Cable and AT&T, both of which imposed disciplinary action against their clients for using WiFi and Virtual Private Networks to allow multiple users to access the Internet via one connection. A more recent case, which is still ongoing, saw Canadian ISP Shaw Cable intentionally downgrading the signals of VOIP services competing with their own in order to drive customers to choose their VOIP service by making competitors’ services appear worse.

Bandwidth has always been the primary cost for Internet Service Providers. Loosely defined, the term bandwidth means, “… a data transmission rate; the maximum amount of information (bits/second) that can be transmitted along a channel” (source: Princeton University Wordnet). The size of a data-pipe dictates the amount of data that can be transmitted across it at any given time with larger files such as audio or video requiring much more bandwidth than smaller text-based files such as typical HTML web documents.

In the early 1980s one of the “founding fathers of the Internet”, Dr. Vint Cerf, (now Chief Internet Evangelist at Google), invented an ingenious method for transferring large amounts of data electronically across multiple networks. When information from a web server is downloaded onto your computer, it is delivered in a series of separate packets that are reconfigured by your web browser. This allows a large number of people to use the same pipeline at the same time by sharing the available bandwidth roughly equally between them.

Electricity does not necessarily flow in a straight line. Like water, electricity will always take the path of least resistance when moving from point A to point B. For example, it is likely that the document you are reading right now took several unique paths to get from the web server on which it is hosted to your computer. Parts of the document might have gone south while other portions traveled a northerly route. Within seconds, all parts of the document meet at your IP address and are recompiled or resolved by your browser. Because of this, most data flowing across the Internet somehow travels through American-owned cyberspace on its way from web server to Internet user. US law applies to virtually every signal and data burst that crosses US controlled cyberspace.

So how will changes to the tradition of Network Neutrality affect search engine marketers and their clients? That is a difficult question to answer with any sense of perspective. The most honest answer is, we don’t yet know however we can assume the effects will come in ways nobody, including proponents of a multi-tiered web ever expected.

Some have speculated that once the major Telcos have the ability to levy surcharges for premium services, alliances or deals will be struck between specific search engines and specific telecommunications providers. This could lead to the same Telcos limiting or even restricting content from non-aligned search providers. Others have speculated that once the major Telcos have the ability to pick and choose information that gets passed across their networks, politically or socially unpopular opinions, or even opinions that differ from those held by the Telcos, could face limits or restrictions.

One way a tiered network structure would certainly affect search marketing is to limit the podcasting and video advertising opportunities that are just opening for search marketers. Content requiring extra bandwidth could suddenly become subject to extra fees.

Perhaps the most obvious way a tiered Internet will affect the search marketing community is a slowing of the sustained growth of the Internet, especially for small to medium sized businesses who see search marketing as way of leveling the advertising playing field with their larger competitors.

One piece of hopeful speculation suggests that the US Congress is rapidly legislating control of the Internet away from US business interests, even as it is obviously trying to give US big businesses more control over the ‘Net. As the thinking goes, many other nations are building their own infrastructure and will soon be capable of routing signals away from US controlled cyberspace. This however, is the worst fear of both sides of the debate because nobody wants to see a non-international Internet.

The Telcos and other supporters of a tiered Internet suggest that the current system limits innovation and expansion because there is currently no way to guarantee a return on the massive infrastructure investments necessary to allow the Internet to continue to grow. Opponents suggest that changing the tradition of treating all data types as equal will limit creativity and technical innovation, along with allowing the specter of big business control to morph into outright censorship of competing ideas or technologies.

The one group that has not been heard from in this debate is the users themselves. That is likely because the issue itself is somewhat difficult to understand and involves a plethora of high-power political maneuvering by major corporations and their paid lobbyists. The general public, the ones who will be most affected, appears to feel disenfranchised from the debate, a danger that might only be recognized after the debate is long over and a multi-tiered Internet becomes the norm for US citizens.

For more information from both sides of the debate, please visit:

Pro Net Neutrality:
- SavetheInternet.com
- ItsOurNet.org

Against Net Neutrality:
- Handsoff.org
- The Future Faster Net Neutrality Campaign

General Information:
- Compilation of CNET News articles
- Eric Schmidt (CEO Google)
- Vint Cerf (Inventor, TCP/IP)


One Response to “Network Neutrality – A Fight for Literal Freedom of Information”

  1. Anonymous

    The Shaw comment is false. They do offer a $10 a month fee to “guarantee” QOS to Vonage or other customers on their network but the fee is optional and the company does not intentionally degrade the service.

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