Internet Toll Booths

Net Neutrality has been a hot topic for some time.  At the heart of the issue is a struggle to increase revenues by charging for content, as well as access.  The term “Net Neutrality” itself refers to the idea that the network should be neutral, or free.  A “free” network would have no access restrictions preventing a user from accessing the content they wanted.  Andrew Odlyzko, Director of the Digital Technology Center at the University of Minnesota, recently published a paper(PDF) concerning Net Neutrality.  He highlights the struggle between big business and market fairness, a struggle that has existed for a very long time.

Think back to the early days of the Internet when providers charged for access by either a transfer or time limit.  This practice gradually gave way to unlimited access for a flat monthly fee.  In more recent times, reports have surfaced about providers who are limiting the total amount of traffic a user can transfer per month.  While providers aren’t coming out and saying it, they have seemingly reverted back to the pay-per-meg days of old.

More concerning, perhaps, is the new practice of throttling specific traffic.  While this seems to be centered around BitTorrent and Peer-to-Peer traffic at the moment, what’s to prevent a provider from throttling site-specific traffic.  In fact, what’s to prevent the provider from creating “Walled Gardens” and charging the end user for access to “extra” content not included in the garden?

Apparently nothing, as some companies have already been doing this, and others have announced plans to.  More recently, the FCC has decided to step in and look into the allegations of data tampering.  Of course, the FCC seems to have problems of it’s own at the moment.

So what is the ultimate answer to this question?  Should the ISP have the right to block and even tamper with data?  Should the end-user have the right to free access to the Internet?  These are tough questions, ones that have been heavily debated for some time, and will likely be debated far into the future.

For myself, my opinion is based on being both a subscriber, as well as an engineer for a service provider.  The provider has built the infrastructure used to access the Internet.  Granted, the funds used to build that infrastructure were provided by the subscribers, but the end result is the same.  The infrastructure is owned by the provider.  As with most property, the owner is generally free to do what they want with it, though this can be a pretty hotly debated topic as well, and perhaps a discussion for a later date.

For now, let’s assume that the owner has the right to modify and use what they own with the only limits being those laws that protect safety.  In other words, I am free to dictate the rules in my own hotel.  Kids can only play in the play room, drinks and food are only allowed in the dining room, and no-one walks through the hall without shoes on.  I will only provide cable TV with CNN and the weather channel, and the pool is only open from 1pm to 5pm on weekdays.  As a hotel owner, I can set these rules, and enforce them by having any guest who violates them removed.  That is my right as a hotel owner.  Of course, if the guests don’t like my rules, they are free to stay at another hotel.

How is this different from an ISP?  An ISP can set the rules however they want, and the subscriber can vote on those rules through the use of their wallet.  Don’t like the rules?  Cancel your subscription and go elsewhere.

Of course, this brings up a major problem with the current state of Internet access.  Unfortunately, there are many areas, even heavily populated ones, where there is no other provider to go to.  In some cases there is a telephone company to provide access, but no alternative such as cable.  In others, cable exists, but the phone company doesn’t have high-speed access yet.  And, in the grand tradition of greed and power, the providers in those areas are able to charge whatever rates they want (with some limitations, as set by the government), and allow or block access in any manner they wish.  And since there are no alternatives, the subscriber is stuck with service they don’t want at a rate they don’t want to pay.

So, my view is somewhat convoluted by the fact that competition between providers is non-existent in some areas.  Many subscribers are stuck with the local carrier and have no choice.  And while I believe that the provider should be able to run their network as they choose, it muddies the waters somewhat because the subscriber cannot vote with their wallet unless they are willing to go without access.

I don’t find the idea of a “walled garden” as that much of a problem, per se.  Look at AOL, for instance.  They flourished for a long time and they were a perfect example of a walled garden at the beginning.  More recent times have led to them allowing full Internet access, but the core AOL client still exists and allows them to feed specific content to the customer.  If providers were willing to lower rates and provide interfaces such as AOLs, I can easily see some users jumping at the opportunity.  Likewise, I see users, such as myself, who are willing to pay a premium for unadulterated access to the Internet.

My hope is that the Internet remains unmolested and open to those who want access.  We can only wait and see what will happen in the end.

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