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Net Neutrality (and why we should care) part 1 of 3
added Wed May 17 2006 at 8:26 PM
A few months ago, articles like this one in the Washington Post started appearing, reporting that various executives at telecommunication companies wanted to start charging websites and various web services for bandwidth being transmitted to their end customers. For example, BellSouth would charge Google and MSN any time that information is transferred from their servers across BellSouth's network. If the source does not pay the fee, then their connection will be downgraded.

One of the complaints by the telephone companies is that they end up footing the bill for competitors such as VoIP (Voice over IP) provider Skype. They also complain that companies that are exploiting high-speed internet connections are doing so without paying them anything. They say that Google, Yahoo, MSN, and others have been getting a free lunch.

There was an immediate and very vocal backlash from the internet community, and many opponents decided that the best way to keep this from happening would be to convince Congress to pass a law guaranteeing what was termed "Net Neutrality," outlawing any discrimination on the part of the ISP concerning what traffic is given priority treatment. Just recently, I've started seeing more vocal examples of people in the internet community opposing such legislation, so it has slowly become a truly hot topic on the internet. Needless to say, I'm not the first to analyze this topic, so if you want more opinions or evidence for one side or the other, feel free to google it or for a more technical description and definition, check out the Wikipedia article on it. That's where I got a lot of information from.

In part 1, I'll describe some of the arguments for net neutrality and explain why many people want to legislate it. In Part 2, I'll describe the arguments against it and explain why legislation may be a bad idea. Throughout these two parts, I'll try to remain non-partisan, but since I don't have anybody editing my remarks I'm sure that I'll slip in some biased remarks. Finally, I'll explain my own opinion of why the telephone companies should not even try this, with or without legislation.

One or two definitions before I begin. Network Neutrality does not only refer to bandwidth. What most people call bandwidth is the bitrate, or the amount of data that can be sent per second. Another major factor for enjoying broadband applications is the network latency, or the time it takes for an action from the user to register a change on the user's computer. For example, if an employee were logged onto their employer's VPN (virtual private network) and it takes a long time for them to do anything on the network, it is most likely because of high latency in the network. When you "ping" another computer, you are measuring the latency of the network between your computer and the other. Obviously, for things like VoIP applications, low latency is a must for real-time communication that people expect from a phone conversation. Most broadband technologies work best when there is both a high bitrate and a low latency. Telecommunication companies are threatening to limit one, the other, or both if companies do not pay for privileged status.

Most arguments for net neutrality involve concern for how this will affect the future of small companies and the end-user's ability to make fair choices between competing companies. If only those that are able to pay for a "preferred" status can reach their customers with high-bandwidth applications, then users wanting to try new technologies or want to use existing technologies with small companies will not be able to do so. For example, if a company wants to allow their employees to connect to work via a VPN, the company may have to pay a variety of internet companies for the privilege of high bandwidth and low latency. This may limit the company's ability or desire to explore new technologies for connecting using the internet.

Many net neutralists (for the lack of a better term defining those that are for net neutrality) also fear that if an internet company is allowed to start degrading the connection to companies that don't pay them directly that there will be nothing to prevent them from completely blocking portions of the internet they don't approve of. This, of course, already happens somewhat with companies blocking pornography or gambling, except that in general that is the decision of the end customer, who is entitled to allow or disallow any internet sites or services they please. These filtering services are generally not in question. What is more of a concern is if a third party- neither the end user nor the originating source- disapproves of the content, then they will be able to prevent the communication.

I present three possible examples of how this could be used. I will use BellSouth as an example in each of them, simply because they are the company specifically referred to in the article I originally pointed at.
  1. BellSouth decides that they want to prevent the next Columbine, so they block all websites of hate groups, tutorials on how to make bombs, and because everybody knows that video games are evil, they block MicroSoft's XBox Live. Sony's new system is allowed to run at full speed because Sony and BellSouth both make sacrifices at the same devil-worshipping shrine. I mean, Sony Computer Entertainment has the financial support from Sony BMG Music to pay for the increased bandwidth expense.
  2. A new company decides that they want to revolutionize how people interact with their friends across the country. They combine new PC hardware with your existing broadband connection to allow you to not only see and hear the person on the other end, but also be able to smell them (I know you've all been eagerly waiting for smell-o-vision). This is being marketed as a great way to talk with your pet while traveling, as well as be able to hold a birthday party. Okay, this is an incredibly stupid idea (sorry to shatter any potential business plans), but if I actually had a real idea that would require high bandwidth and low latency and would have a hope of penetrating the market, I'd be selling it right now instead of using it as an example.

    At any rate, the upstart company is sinking a lot of money into giving out free hardware and introductory trial subscriptions. They don't have any money left, yet BellSouth thinks it's unfair that Smell-a-PC is using their bandwidth and demands that they either pay a lot of money or their customers will not be able to actually try the new technology. Smell-a-PC tries to go without paying BellSouth, but because everybody knows that southerners are on the cutting edge of technology and vocally demand the best of everything, when a few BellSouth customers try out the new product and it doesn't work very well they log onto all the review sites and report that it's a fake. Smell-a-PC basically can't get a foot hold because they can't afford yet another barrier cost. Meanwhile, MSN starts PC-Stinkers, which is an inferior product, but because MSN has money, they can pay for BellSouth customers to receive the product and become a huge success.
  3. A new senate candidate decides to run a grassroots campaign, mostly based on the corruption of the current senator. The incumbent is not only killing bunnies and pirating software, he also has a very large campaign fund and a close "business relationship" (how do you spell soft money?) with BellSouth. BellSouth's best interest is to keep the incumbent, so they throttle bandwidth of the challenger to the point that she cannot display any video of the incumbent killing bunnies. When the race still becomes too close for BellSouth's comfort, they totally block the challenger's website, as well as any blog that endorses her and threatens to block any news site that reports on her recent success.
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