There was a time not long ago when data communication was based upon phone lines, proprietary modems, and service contracts with AT&T. Perhaps you're old enough to remember 300-baud connections or the thrill of establishing a network for your company's remote offices.
Today, of course, you can read your email, talk to your team members, participate in a Web conference, and simultaneously read this column while sipping your Mocha Grande at the corner Starbucks. In fact, my son Tobias recently did something equivalent from his portable office at his non-profit organization called HumanTranslation.org. However, instead of sitting in Starbucks conducting business, he was crouched in the ruins of the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, communicating to NGOs around the world about building an agricultural dam for the people of Siem Riep. Tobias' entire office consisted of a Sony Vaio and his Internet connection. Talk about portability!
Indeed, access to Internet bandwidthâ€”thanks to the standardization of communications protocols, satellite communications, and the massive fiber optic networks built in the 1990sâ€”has come to be perceived as a natural extension of the human voice by Internet trekkies around the world. But many believe that if HR 5252: The Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Efficiency Act of 2006 (COPE) becomes law, the accessibility of the Internet will be severely hampered by large network providers like AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon. These concerned activists believe that a basic concept of the Internetâ€”something called network neutralityâ€”is being dismantled by Congress to placate communications companies that have a vested interest in controlling communications across the Internet.
Franchising the Internet
Companies such as Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner, and Verizonâ€”companies that own the broadband networksâ€”want the federal government to franchise the Internet and to permit them to operate Internet and other digital communications services as private networks. This would allow them to control, meter, and charge client corporations and individuals not only for access to the Internet, but for the amount of bandwidth that they consume, much as their predecessor organizations once controlled, metered, and charged clients for the use of private data communication facilities in the previous generation of technology.
On the surface, this seems like a reasonable and rational financial request. After all, from their perspective, these organizations built or bought the broadband network infrastructure. Why shouldn't they have a say and reap the extra profits? Why should Tobias, located in the jungles of Cambodia or Thailand, have the same bandwidth access rights to the Internet that General Motors or IBM has without paying his fair share for the network costs when he maximizes his use of his technology? Why shouldn't General Motors or IBM pay substantially more when they transmit terabytes of information around the world?
Private vs. Public
For the largest corporations using the Internetâ€”those using virtual private network (VPN) protocolsâ€”the cost of doing business using the current telecommunications technology is already factored into their business models, and this invariably consists of contracts with the largest network providers. The benefits of having a single network provider such as AT&T or Verizon establishing the access rules and the security protocols makes tremendous sense.
But for the smaller, less financially affluent organizations, the entire business modelâ€”as applied to the Internetâ€”is odious and fraught with problems. It is, in that context, the equivalent of "taxing the air that we breathe." From their perspective, this issue of network neutrality is a sell-out by Congress in the COPE legislation.
So what are their concerns, beyond the prospect of increased cost? In two words, censorship and competition! Let's look at their arguments and see what the concern is about.
De Facto Censorship
Today, you or I can launch a Web page from anywhere in the world and anyone else in the worldâ€”with the exception of people in China and a few other countriesâ€”can view it with a minimum of technology and an Internet connection. Once connected to the Web page, your visitor can download or (if permitted by the Webmaster) upload an unlimited amount of digital information. What that information might be is not the responsibility of the network provider, and the cost is defined by the terms that have been contracted by the consumer with the network provider. In Cambodia, this may be defined as a per-minute charge through the local Internet cafe. In the United States, it's usually defined as a monthly service charge. In some cases, as will happen soon in San Francisco and Philadelphia, even those charges might be deferred as the accessibility of wireless is provided as a free service to all.
But in the future, according to the critics of the COPE legislation, the network provider will determine who has access to your Web page or how much access will be provided. If this provider feels that you are abusing one of its rules, it will have the authority to block access to your Web page. Moreover, if your Web page becomes too popularâ€”consuming too much bandwidthâ€”the provideer will have the authority to restrict how much data can be transmitted between your page and your visitor's Web browser. If you want more bandwidth, you will pay for it.
Examples in the Current ISP Marketplace
Many ISP sites already control server bandwidth for clients, but few examples of this model are in the network provider space: For instance, Yahoo has a public service called GeoCities that allows its subscribers to build a Web page for free, but then charges a set amount for bandwidth consumption that exceeds a certain level.
But if you extend this same business model to the entire Internetâ€”with the network providers controlling the bandwidthâ€”the formula for censorship becomes ripe for abuse.
In that scenario, any popular Web site or information resource that acts as a public service can be squelched simply by dint of the popularity of its message. In the programming world, publicly supported sites like SourceForge.net might be throttled unless it contracted with the service provider for broader bandwidth services. Instead of a "free exchange" of information across the Internet, the financial model for sustaining communications on the Internet might actually hamper the growth of collaboration.
Examples of Central Censorship
Consider that Yahoo and Google are being chastised by human rights activists for providing private information about their Chinese subscribers to the Chinese government, with a result of penalizing these free-speech activists with prison sentences. Imagine a similar potential in the hands of large corporations like AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, or Verizon, bowing to political pressure to restrict access to controversial information sites or services. Sure, there may be ample reason to censor some sites that traffic in pornography. But is this authority in the purview of the network provider, a provider that might have a financial interest in controlling the content of specific users?
"It would never happen!" you might insist. But there are already well-documented cases proving that precisely this kind of censorship has occurred in Canada and the United States.
For instance, last year Canada's telephone giant Telus blocked customers from visiting a Web site sympathetic to the Telecommunications Workers Union during a labor dispute. And just this year, Time Warner's AOL blocked all emails that mentioned www.dearaol.com, an advocacy campaign opposing the company's pay-to-send email scheme.
Who would have guessed, just a few years ago, that Voice over IP (VOIP) would be such an important factor in business and personal communications? (Well, OK! If you were reading this publication, all of you knew it was coming!) And who would have predicted that getting lost on the Internet could spawn a mega corporation like Google that would transform a Web browser into a daily business appliance?
These are just two kinds of organizations thatâ€”though providing completely different sets of servicesâ€”rely heavily upon Internet neutrality: lots of Internet bandwidth, ample access, and no restrictions to content. It would arguably have been impossible to develop these services were it not for network neutrality: VOIP requires tremendous bandwidth to deliver voice communications, and Google requires open access across the network to search for content.
Yet if COPE becomes law and the giant network providers treat the Internet as a private and controlled reserve, tremendous obstacles will be placed in the path of organizations that are trying to maximize the net for the benefit of its users. And, quite frankly, these obstacles are often the competing interests of the network providers themselves.
For instance, AT&T and SBC were slow to recognize the vast potential of the private, non-commercial VOIP market. It was only after Vonage paved the way with its inexpensive consumer offering that AT&T began marketing its own competing service.
Now, ask yourself this question: Would a company like Vonage have stood a chance if AT&T controlled the Internet? What about Skype, a competitor based in England? AT&T has a long history of squelching competition. Indeed, it was precisely this anti-competitive culture within AT&T that ultimately split up the giant phone monopoly 30 years ago. Technologies like VOIP would have languished for many more years, analysts assert, had AT&T maintained its government-sanctioned control over voice communications.
"But that would never happen today!" you insist. Yet in 2004, North Carolina ISP Madison River blocked their DSL customers from using any rival Web-based phone service. And in Canada a big Canadian cable TV company is charging an extra $10 a month to subscribers who want to use a competing Internet telephone service. If Network Neutrality is lostâ€”auctioned off to the largest network providers as a misguided attempt at deregulationâ€”new technological advancements will be restricted to what the network providers feel they can successfully market. As a result, many analysts believe COPE will stifle competition and destroy the basic Internet mechanisms that create innovation.
Meanwhile, the COPE legislation has very limited language regarding anti-competitive restrictions, and this lack of oversightâ€”franchising the public Internet to the service providers themselvesâ€”does not bode well for either free market competition or open access to Internet resources for the development of new technologies. By turning over the Internet to the network providers, to control, monitor, meter, and charge for services, the legislation opens the door for these providers to make their own rules for the benefit of their own bottom lines.
Who Built the Internet?
The network providers proclaim that they built the infrastructure of the Internet, and should therefore be rewarded with the tools to control who and what is being transmitted through it. But this is exactly the point of contention.
Internet activists can justly claim that without their content, without their enthusiasm and without their entrepreneurship, the broadband networks owned by the largest corporations in the world are merely wires and boxes. Yes, these service providers should be amply rewarded for investments in infrastructure. But they should not control it.
Moreover, these activists claim, no one comes to the Internet for the wires and the boxes: They come for the content and the opportunity to collaborate. From their perspective, the network providers merely built a roadwayâ€”one that they begrudgingly built only after their other network offerings faltered. But it was the users of the Internet that actually built the value of the public network, and they bridle at the thought that AT&T or Verizon or any other large corporate entity should control it.
Back in the Jungle
Meanwhile, my son Tobias continues trekking the back roads of Cambodia with his notebook and his Internet connection. His Web site continues to attract new readers, raised a fair amount of capital for the project, and now has plans to build a collaborative network to help NGOs evaluate other worthwhile projects in developing countries. His first volunteer, from Chicago, recently joined him, and a second volunteer is creating a short film about his project. His precept is simple: A single individual, with a notebook computer, the Internet, and a strong sense of commitment, can help focus attention to the needs of the less fortunate, raise money, and deliver humanitarian services where they are needed. That's the entire focus of his HumanTranslation.Org, and he's out in the field testing this hypothesis.
When I need to speak to him in his world, the Internet is his only means of communication. But it is not a road less traveled these days. After all, it's the Internet.
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Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online. LP