11.11.2005A few more thoughts about internet neutrality. This issue, which is undoubtedly raging through the blogosphere right now (of course cleverly instigated by Google's own propaganda machine), is perhaps the biggest one facing the shape of the internet today, and our own social communications more generally. How these issues are decided will determine the future of the online world.
One of the things that set the debate off recently was SBC CEO Ed Whitacre's remarks about Google 'using thier pipes for free' in a recent interview:
How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google (GOOG ), MSN, Vonage, and others?
How do you think they're going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?
The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! (YHOO ) or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!
To anyone who uses the internet with any regularity, this statement feels horribly backwards and ignorant to the point of being dangerous. First off, Google pays its bandwidth bills, as do every user of SBC's services. Everything going through SBC's pipes has been paid for. What he is complaining about, however, is that Google's services are only possible through the network infrastructure that SBC have invested a lot of money in.
Its as if SBC built a bridge connecting Google on the one side, and its users on the other, and tolls each as they cross. But then it realizes that the bridge it built is the only way customers can go back and forth to Google, and Google keeps making lots of money on SBC's initial investment- so SBC decides to charge Google again for each customer it serves.
Now, if just SBC were of this mindset it wouldn't be a huge problem: users would stop using SBC's pipes, and SBC would suffer because of it. You can't limit Google from your users without expecting some backlash. But this is just the iceberg in a general attack on internet neutrality across the board.
From ars technica: Monitoring traffic to nickel and dime you
I've seen the future, and it's a tad bit scary. Here's what in the works: networking analysis technology that "knows" what kind of content is being passed on a network, and can act appropriately. Perhaps it will block the traffic. Or, maybe you'll be charged for it. The future, in some places, is now.
Could it happen in the US? Yes and no. The US already has laws on the books that would make it illegal for a carrier to block traffic from a competitor, but don't worry, Narus' president of marketing Jay Thomas has it all figured out. Prepare to be incensed.
"But there's nothing that keeps a carrier in the United States from introducing jitter, so the quality of the conversation isn't good," Thomas says. "So the user will either pay for the carrier's voice-over-Internet application, which brings revenue to the carrier, or pay the carrier for a premium service that allows Skype use to continue. You can deteriorate the service, introduce latency [audible delays in hearing the other end of the line], and also offer a premium to improve it."
These attempts to centralize control over the internet are exactly what Vint Cerf was arguing against in the House Commerce and Energy hearings. The fact of the matter is that keeping internet neutrality is beneficial to both the consumer and the businesses, provided that their business model is geared towards a neutral internet, as Google's is; and Google is fighting for regulation to maintain that neutrality. It just so happens that Google's interests coincide with our own, but thats not merely a happy coincidence- Google's entire business model rests on its users and contributors for content and information. Google needs us as much as we need it. But the older, more established telecom companies, like SBC, who have a top-down model of their consumers, sees neutrality as a threat to their centralized control over the internet, and it is a threat being launched on the infrastructure that they built.
Any way you slice it, it doesn't look like it will be a nice, neat battle. And there is a lot at stake. Hopefully this starts to get more media coverage in the near future.
For more information, ars technica linked to a paper (PDF) by Barbara van Schewick that is worth reading.