May 18 2008
Right now, as you read this post, you are likely logged onto the internet. The way that you get to Dear Author is through an internet service provider who allows data packets to be sent over phone lines, cable lines, cell towers, or via satellite. The internet service provider could be Comcast, Qwest, AOL, and the like. Each month, you pay a fee for this access. Currently, all access is supposedly deemed equal meaning that you can access Dear Author at the same speed that you can access CNN, assuming that the websites are optimized for speed.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have the power to do two major things to impede the free flow of information: traffic management and therefore content management.
Traffic management is a way for ISPs to decide who gets what information and at what speed. For example, an ISP can control how fast content is delivered to your computer. ISPs want to move toward tiered access whereby the end user (you) pay and the content provider, such as a blog owner, pay for use. We have a modified tier access right now in that you pay a higher rate to have faster access to the internet (broadband v. dialup) but ISPs would like to move beyond that.
Think of how you get television. Some people can only afford to get the free content – the local networks. The free content is determined by the four major television stations. If you don’t like what you see on NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox, then you have to pay. You can pay for cable or satellite and each one has its own limitations. We have DirecTV (which we hate by the way) because it has an exclusive deal with the NFL. We get channels (at a higher pay rate) that cannot be had on other pay services. But DirecTV decides what channels we will get. We don’t make that choice, the choice is made for us by the television provider.
On the other end–the content end–the ISP wants to charge a tax affecting the speeds at which websites load. For example, Amazon could afford to pay to be in the fast lane but a small independent would not so Amazon would load lightning fast and the small independent bookstore website would be relegated to the slow lane, making its website take minutes to load. Or Publishers Weekly could afford to pay to be in the fast lane and you could access Barbara Vey’s blog but Dear Author and other small bloggers would be relegated to the slow lane whereby our sites load at dial up speeds.
Essentially ISPs want to collect money on both ends for the same thing. They want to collect money from the end user (you) to receive the information and the ISPs want to collect money from the content provider (like Dear Author) by charging to send the information.
Some big name individuals like Mark Cuban are pro traffic management, arguing that Johnny’s need to download a movie shouldn’t impede the use of broadband by a medical provider trying to treat Johnny’s grandmother. The idea is that those who use the internet at higher rates should pay for that use. It’s not different, conceptually, than paying for faster access by paying for broadband.
The fallacy of this argument is that one of the highest sources of broadband use is YouTube. YouTube is full of crappy videos and useless information but it is also home to videos that expose corruption in politics and injustice. (See, e.g., Mashable’s list of YouTube bannings). The power of YouTube is the power of the internet. Essentially it is the power of one voice to make change. This one voice would be stifled if video is available only to the highest tier of traffic management payers. How many people would be able to afford it? How many people, not just in the US and other developed nations, even have access to broadband?
Further, these ISPs would use tiered management to restrict the flow of information from its competitors, pushing its own content to the front of the line, allowing higher speed access for its videos, blogs, and data. Your selection of entertainment and information would be restricted by your ISP.
Net Neutrality wants to preserve the free flow of information on the internet. The net should be allowed to simply move packets of data, or information, without ISPs deciding what information gets moved at a higher and faster rate. Tiered access violates the idea of a free flow of information. I can’t help but wonder whether Mark Cuban would be billionaire he is today if tiered access was in place when he started Broadcast.com “with a single server and an ISDN line.” Probably, he had made $2 million at this point and could have paid his way onto a higher, more trafficked provider.
Mark Cuban and others argue that if the US focuses on technology and making broadband of higher quality, these traffic management issues will be moot. I often wonder how inept of a country we are if we can’t multi-task. Why can’t we pursue technology that makes quality broadband access to everyone in the US and the world while still maintaining net neutrality?
Next week: The Legislative history of net neutrality.