1.13.2006The new mind-body dualism taking shape in the new and largely unconceptualized world of the Internet is, as we have seen, the service/content dichotomy. This dualism reared its head in the discussions on Wikipedia, and it surfaces again in SBC- I mean, AT&T's- continuing attempts at disrupting internet neutrality.
From Ars Technica: AT&T sees benefits to tiered Internet service
Saying that "the reality is that business models are changing," Lindner said that there are opportunities to "enter into commercial arrangements and agreements that are beneficial to [AT&T and other] companies and are certainly beneficial to the service that customers have." As an example, Lindner talked about gamers who would benefit from AT&T partnering with a game server hosting company in order to provide exceptional service by creating privileged network connections "where we control quality of service." This isn't the same thing as allowing users to host game servers, or setting up servers for their broadband community. No, the idea is that using technological means, an ISP can partner with another provider on the Internet, and build a privileged network link to enhance service.
The multi-tiered Internet thus begins to take shape. You can continue to pay for your 6Mbps connection, but don't expect it to deliver all things equally. Quality of Service (QoS), a networking concept describing the technological methods for guaranteeing that some network traffic is serviced better than traffic, is the key. Customers will soon pay for premium service options to see specific kinds of traffic—gaming, VoIP, media streaming, and who knows what else—perform better because there is technology available that can give that kind of traffic a privileged status. For high-intensity bandwidth services, this could mean that companies dealing primarily in Internet-delivered services will need to partner with ISPs in order to deliver the experiences they want.
"There always will be some tension between companies that own and develop content and companies that have customer bases, and networks and distribution methods for that content," Lindner said. "It does involve some change, some evolution, in business models."
Ultimately, the fear is that QoS will be tapped in order to bolster the power of the ISPs, who all the while will defend their actions by saying that they are not blocking or inhibiting traffic. While QoS is nothing new, to date it has seen limited use in end-user commercial Internet service, largely because its uses have been limited. But with so many new bandwidth-intensive applications taking hold, this will likely change.
The idea of a multi-tiered internet is, of course, a rather simple divide and conquer strategy, and has roughly the effect of imposing class divisions on the internet. On its face this undermines the central virtue of the internet, but I am sure I don't need to defend neutrality for my readers.
What is interesting is that this imposition is justified by an appeal to the service/content distinction. My inner philosopher is somewhat amused by the dichotomy, which looks almost like a Heideggerian spin on the empiricist scheme/content dichotomy. A service is active and interactive; it is a procedure, it is something you do, or at least, something that gets done to you. This stands in stark contrast to a scheme, which is dead and inert (As I like to tell my students, it is something you can write on a chalkboard).
The idea is that AT&T isn't doing anything wrong by offering a QoS package, since either way they aren't limiting the content you have access to. Rather, they are limiting the way you have access to it. You can use the standard pipes which may be of questionable reliability, or their QoS pipes which may offer better, more relaible service. Especially if they rig their standard pipes to disrupt services they'd rather you pay for, like VOIP.
Notice what this means. AT&T is basically admitting that by being your ISP, all they are obligated to do is pass the info you have requested along, but that they aren't responsible for the quality of the service they are providing. Access to the internet, on this model, is specifically access to content. I don't know if they can pull this move off, though of course they have the resources and motivation to do so. The question is simply if they can sell it to consumers, or if we will be smart enough to see that this is a somewhat desparate and definitely evil attempt for an Old World company to stay relevant in the New World.