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Net Neutrality

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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.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

29 Comments

  1. Charlene Teglia
    May 18, 2008 @ 06:06:56

    Not only would changing the internet mean I couldn’t look up information I needed, say from small research sources like The Viking Lady, this change would have a drastic impact on small businesses and their ability to compete and survive.

    More on the issue and how to save the internet here:

    http://www.savetheinternet.com/

    ReplyReply

  2. Shiloh Walker
    May 18, 2008 @ 07:47:46

    Nice, simple explanation, without all the legaleze or double speak.

    Thanks, Jane.

    So my question is… if we’re for net neutrality, what should we do? Contact our state reps?

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  3. Shiloh Walker
    May 18, 2008 @ 08:01:45

    Oh, and I gotta say… cute kitty.

    ReplyReply

  4. Marianne McA
    May 18, 2008 @ 08:02:33

    Still a bit baffled. Who gets to decide whether this happens? And how does it work internationally? Would all countries sign up to this, or would it only affect the US?

    ReplyReply

  5. JaneO
    May 18, 2008 @ 08:22:42

    I tried to get to the website Charlene mentioned but couldn’t get through. I did, however, send messages to my congressman and senators.

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  6. rebyj
    May 18, 2008 @ 09:56:04

    The normally dormant, paranoid conspiracy theorist in me says its a way of censuring content like china does, just in a back door kind of way.
    I’m so used to fast loading pages that if ANYTHING is in the least slow, I click on something else and move on.

    I know one thing, if this passes and things do slow down I would drop down to dial up. The Internet provider I use would lose 50+ bux a month.

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  7. DS
    May 18, 2008 @ 10:05:42

    I’m glad you raised this. I think it is an important First Amendment issue. I’ve sent emails to my representatives about it and I hope that others will too.

    Also, I would advise a follow up snail mail letter. I have head from the political people in a professional organization that I belong to that snail mail is still more highly valued.

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  8. Sherry Thomas
    May 18, 2008 @ 10:09:58

    Thanks, Jane.

    ReplyReply

  9. Writers Blog » Blog Archive » Net neutrality, the working writer, and you
    May 18, 2008 @ 11:30:58

    [...] at Dear Author is blogging about Net Neutrality. It’s a topic I’m passionate about. If you check my sidebar, you’ll see [...]

  10. Rosie
    May 18, 2008 @ 11:38:06

    I often skim these sorts of posts but this really caught my interest. This is an issue I struggle to keep up with and know what’s going on because it can/will directly affect the end-user.

    I’ve written the letters to congressman and senator and signed petitions. Is there anything else anyone can think of?

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  11. EC Sheedy
    May 18, 2008 @ 11:46:37

    Excellent and concise post, Jane. Thanks for educating me. But I have to ask the same question as Marianne: Who gets to decide whether this happens?

    Thanks to you, I’ll keep an eye on this issue.

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  12. Emmy
    May 18, 2008 @ 11:58:46

    I wonder how companies like Clearwire are going to handle this. I use them, and they charge by how fast you want your guaranteed connection speed to be, unlike cable and dialup providers, who say you can get up to a certain speed, depending on how many people are using the server in your area at any given time.

    I would be extremely upset if I paid for the highest speed, but still had to download things at dialup speed because the place I wanted to download from could only afford the slowest speed. What good is that?

    Here’s another idea: instead of cramming 1,000 people onto one tower, put more out there. A provider’s inability to keep up with demand for information access should not impede on my ability to access that information.

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  13. Joanna Bourne
    May 18, 2008 @ 14:46:54

    Net Neutrality. Net Neutrality! Go! Go! Go!

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  14. Robin
    May 18, 2008 @ 15:35:46

    I came across this little piece last week, and it ties into this whole Net Neutrality issue, because of the sources of the “bloat” on many webpages. I think we all know that multinational corporations rule the world these days, but that doesn’t mean we have to surrender completely to their particular brand of webocracy. But it does mean we have to be actively engaged in understanding how, exactly, we’re being manipulated.

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  15. Bonnie L.
    May 18, 2008 @ 17:07:18

    Jane,
    I have to thank you for telling us all about this because I knew nothing about this issue until you brought it up a couple of weeks back. The things that some companies are (or potentially will be) allowed to do in the intrest of making a buck off of someone’s hard work makes me ill. I plan on telling everyone I know who uses the internet about this so that we can be vocal protestors.

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  16. Bev Stephans
    May 18, 2008 @ 18:49:52

    I wondered why some sites loaded faster than others. I have Cox and pay big bucks for it. I would definitely like “Net Neutrality”!

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  17. eggs
    May 18, 2008 @ 19:16:50

    There are not a lot of US websites that I access very often (the main ones being blogs, drudge and the tmz), so this won’t affect me very much at all personally, but it still irritates me with its stupidity. There are massive amounts of idle bandwidth available in the existing “lit” copper and fiber networks that remains unused due to sloppy usage by the providers. They have so much available, they don’t see why they should pony up the money to tighten the networks a little and double up the available bandwidth overnight. And that’s just the currently operational bandwidth.

    At this very moment in time there is so much “unlit” optical fiber sitting under the ground in the USA that we are probably talking about a ballpark figure of around a thousand times more bandwidth available if we were to light it. Remember the big tech bubble back in the late nineties? The big telecoms like Nortel, Cisco and Lucent were predicting that bandwidth useage would keep growing exponentially, and as a result, backbone fibers were being laid at a rate to “keep up” with this growth. Only the growth didn’t occur. And the tech bubble burst. So the fiber was never lit, but it still all sits there buried under the ground waiting for us to turn it on.

    Here’s a good summary article from early 2001 – a few months before the bubble burst. Remember that technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since this article was written and we can now get even more usable bandwidth out of a given fiber than was assumed when this article was written. Link.

    There’s a lot of debate about how much of it could be lit, as it’s basically sat idle without maintenance for a good ten years, but experts agree that, at the very least, a metric shitload of it would light up fine. So the major infrastructure costs of increasing bandwidth have already been dealt with at least ten years ago – all that we are left with are the costs of lighting it up and using it.

    So arguments that little Jimmy needs his youtube slowed down to allow enough bandwidth to remain for Dr Bigshot are totally bogus. This is purely an issue of the telecoms not wanting to bear the costs of doing business. The government should leave this alone for the markets to solve. Those that want the customers will open up their idle bandwidth and those that don’t will go under.

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  18. Stephanie Z.
    May 19, 2008 @ 08:30:33

    So annoying. My boyfriend/fiance is a computer nerd and really big into Net Neutrality (as well as Open Source software — not boobs, though). I agree with him, though: it’s ridiculous for, as usual, the little guy to get screwed over and, as eggs pointed out, NO GOOD REASON.

    Thanks for the Charlie Stross article, Robin. Very interesting.

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  19. Mike Briggs
    May 19, 2008 @ 10:29:30

    Actually, I most recently worked for a telecom company as a computer nerd. The greed is unbelievable. It’s ALL about maximizing profits. Sure we have have ten unlit fibers connecting two regions, but if we pretend there’s only the one fiber that’s currently lit we can charge huge money for a “scarce” resource, and not have to add any equipment or manpower to handle the other fibers. Sure it means that one fiber is saturated all the time, and the customers get lousy transmission speed, but who cares?

    It’s ALL about the money, and the free market is a myth (notice how all the telcos are merging, and our government doesn’t even blink). Most Americans have a choice between one or two huge corporate providers.

    This big companies own the fibers (actually, much of that fiber was paid for with public monies, then given to the telcos with the biggest lobbiests, but I digress). More importantly, these companies control the easements and routes to lay new fiber, and they’re NOT letting any new players in the game, so don’t expect high prices to suddenly spawn a wave of competitive small companies. . . unless wireless really takes off, which would level the playing field a little.

    Break net neutrality and you’ve given them cart blanche to set the price for internet access at whatever their greedy, monopolistic, black hearts desire, and we’ll have no choice but to pay it or go back to the stone age.

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  20. carolyn Jean
    May 19, 2008 @ 10:40:29

    This is such an important issue! And it’s easy to take action!

    Charlene’s hint to go to Savetheinternet.com is a great one.

    When there, you can sign up for their email updates. I’ve been on that list for months, and they alert you when some vote is coming up and make it really easy to email your representatives. I get something from them maybe once a month, so it’s not overwhelming or anything, but SO important.

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  21. Monica Burns
    May 19, 2008 @ 10:48:24

    Still a bit baffled. Who gets to decide whether this happens? And how does it work internationally? Would all countries sign up to this, or would it only affect the US?

    The FCC is the regulating body that the large telecomm companies are lobbying with to make this change. The FCC’s decision will determine whether telecoms can create this Brave New World for us that they say will be better for us. At SaveTheInternet.com, they have a standard email letter you can send to your specific legislators. However, a hard copy generally carries more weight with the Senators and Representatives. Phone calls are even more powerful, because you’re pointing out that this issue is so important to you that you took the time to dial.

    As has been previously stated, there is unlit fiber to access. The question is why not light it up now? My cynical nature says the telecoms know this would hamper their efforts to eliminate net neutrality. Bandwidth has been an issue for years. I have no problem with telecoms either laying new cable or using the unlit fiber and opening it up for faster speed that I pay a higher price for as it would be MY choice. Even then I do not want these companies having access to the data in the pipes.

    * In the US, you have a car (your computer)

    * You fill your car with gas (monthly gas bill to a telecom for Internet access)

    * You drive on free roads, which is the transportation infrastructure we built with tax dollars. Amazingly, the Internet infrastructure was built with a lot of tax breaks to ISPs and yet all the public can do is regulate it.

    * In the US you have unfettered access to just about anywhere you want to drive from city to county, across state boundaries. Although people are stopped and ID’d for access to and from Canada and Mexico, we’re not charged a fee to enter or leave the country that I’m aware of.

    * There are the occasional toll roads (user fees) you encounter when you travel in your car. On the Internet compare those user fees to subscription fees you pay organizations like Romantic Times or RWA to access special content.

    If net neutrality vanishes, you will still pay gas for your car (Internet access) BUT

    your computer (car) will be told by your ISP what Internet highway lane you can ride on, what you can do with your data (music downloads, vendors you visit, and exercising your freedom of speech) all because the telecoms (ISPs) WILL control the data flow in the pipe.

    Paying for infrastructure is one thing. Data flow is completely different. Flourishing grassroots movements on the Internet will suffer serious setbacks if net neutrality vanishes. Our ability to protest and spread the word quickly will be severely hampered if not restricted completely. Maybe not immediately, but it will happen.

    No matter how you slice it, this is a LOT of power to give to just a few corporations, and WAY too much power to give any government.

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  22. rlynn
    May 19, 2008 @ 13:07:04

    I absolutely believe in net neutrality. I’m just afraid that while its an ethical position to hold, ethics aren’t usually enough. We have tiered systems for so many things already. Consider roads, if you pay a toll, you can go faster. Consider healthcare, if you have money, you get better treatment. Consider education, if you live in a wealthier neighborhood, your children go to better schools. These are just as vital “infrastructure/social use” kind of things and yet the tiers are still there.

    The reason net neutrality has traction now is that telcos are proposing something that could slow things down. If telcos changed their argument and guaranteed the present speed for all traffic but any future lines or improvements would be dedicated to customers/consumers who were willing to pay more, the argument suffers a bit. As a society we accept the notion of paying more for better service. We’re only upset because it feels like we’d be paying the same but getting worse service. Its psychologically not as upsetting to think of getting the same service as we do now but some people paying more to be lifted higher. But the end result is the same, tiers to separate the haves and the have nots.

    Don’t get me wrong, like I said before, I do believe in net neutrality. I’m just finding it hard to justify why this case, the internet, is so much more special than all the others: roads, education, healthcare, etc….

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  23. carolyn Jean
    May 19, 2008 @ 14:09:38

    I think it’s more important and special because it’s likely that in the future, the net will be the means by which we can discuss all other issues, such as roads, education, healthcare and more, so limiting what can and can’t be said hurts everything.

    Corporate owned media outlets, from radio to tv, have been known to kill stories and ads based on content, etc. There was recently a case where a cellphone company (Verizon? Comcast?) blocked political text messages based on their content. Keeping the net neutral is about all those issues you mention.

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  24. Monica Burns
    May 19, 2008 @ 14:28:27

    Don't get me wrong, like I said before, I do believe in net neutrality. I'm just finding it hard to justify why this case, the internet, is so much more special than all the others: roads, education, healthcare, etc….

    For me the answer to that would be…the Internet is more special because it is a forum for a fundamental right – freedom of speech – that can easily be limited or restricted by a minority. Shut down the forum and you shut down people’s ability to promote change.

    Without freedom of speech, we jeopardize our ability to be advocates for change to roads, education, healthcare, etc., none of which are fundamental rights, but benefits of the freedoms we enjoy.

    Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.
    Salman Rushdie (1948-?) Anglo-Indian novelist.

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  25. bettie
    May 19, 2008 @ 14:35:59

    I don’t know any consumers who want tiered Internet service. A tiered Internet clearly benefits large corporations over individuals and small businesses, and its chances of being approved by our elected officials rest on keeping the people who will be most affected by the change ignorant of its true workings.

    Thank you Jane for such a clear and concise discussion of the issue.

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  26. SandyW
    May 19, 2008 @ 14:37:27

    So, would this ‘go to the front of the line' money be paid individually to the giant ISP's? And, if so, what happens to people who aren't doing business with the giant ISP's? We connect through a small local company, started during the Depression to provide phone service to isolated rural areas. They started providing Internet service in the mid-1990's, when it was hard to get online in the same area. I like these folks; I would rather send my money to people 40 miles away than deal with some big company halfway across the country. Would we be at a disadvantage because of that?

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  27. Monica Burns
    May 19, 2008 @ 14:48:14

    So, would this ‘go to the front of the line' money be paid individually to the giant ISP's? And, if so, what happens to people who aren't doing business with the giant ISP's? … Would we be at a disadvantage because of that?

    My understanding would be that your small ISP would have to have an agreement with the Big ISP to give you speedy access. The question is, would your small ISP be able to afford the fees the Big ISP charges. They would if they pass on the cost to you, which I imagine is what will happen as has happened in the cable TV industry.

    The better question to ask is…would your access be limited because of who your ISP is and their content filters. An extreme example is something like your small ISP is owned by someone the large ISP considers a radical fringe group (Marxist, Muslim, Overzealous erotic romance writers *grin*), the large ISP could possibly refuse to sell to your small ISP or make it cost-prohibitive for the small ISP.

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  28. AndreaS
    May 20, 2008 @ 12:21:21

    Wow.

    Thanks Jane for the notice. I had no idea people were even considering it.

    Off to write some letters…

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  29. BRADLY
    Oct 15, 2011 @ 09:37:06

    Nice blog, thanks!

    ReplyReply

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