Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND) have recently introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act in an effort to legislate the principle of Network Neutrality. The bill would prevent any broadband internet service provider from "privileging bits" and blocking traffic on the basis of Internet content, application, or service, codifying Net Neutrality as part of the US legal system.
This bill is far from law though, with no House equivalent and little support from Republicans. Two related but distinct constituencies that should be concerned are online gamers and virtual worlders who stand to lose a lot if ISPs are allowed to block the content and applications that give these virtual spaces life.
As Tony Greenberg analyzed in December, in the hilariously titled "Every Time You Vote against Net Neutrality, Your ISP Kills a Night Elf" , online computer games like World of Warcraft and Eve might be the first casualties of a two-tiered internet. Without Net Neutrality protections, Time Warner Cable or AT&T can decide that they would rather you played only X-Box 360 games online but not Wii games. Only companies willing and rich enough to pay the ISPs for the privilege of getting their content and services unblocked would get through the gateway of the ISP — the rest would be stuck in latency hell.
Particularly interesting are Sections 12 (a)(4)-(5) of the bill:
(4) enable any content, application or service made available via the Internet to be offered, provided, or posted on a basis taht —
(A) is reasonable and nondiscriminatory, including with respect to quality of service, access, speed and bandwidth;
(B) is at least equivalent to the access, speed, quality of service and bandwidth that such broadband service provider offers to affiliated content, applications or services made available via the public Internet into the network of such broadband service provider; and
(C) does not impose a charge on the basis of the type of content, applications or services made available via the public Internet into the network of such broadband service provider;
(5) only prioritize content, applications or services made available via the public Internet into the network of such broadband service provider based on the type of content, applications or services and the level of service purchased by the user, without charge for such prioritization;
Now IANAL, but here the Snowe-Dorgan bill does seem to allow the ISP to privilege certain kinds of traffic, but only in a manner that does not discriminate against "affiliated" (i.e. paid) content versus non-affiliated. So the ISP can choose to degrade service for VOIP or streaming video, but only in a way that applies across the board to all services of that nature. They can not pick and choose to block Skype but not Vonage or MSNBC video over YouTube video.
And the ISP could choose to offer different levels of service to the consumer based on different applications or content. Thus they might have a "super-charged" level of access that would include fast rates of access to streaming video, peer-to-peer and VOIP services, and a standard level of service that might slow down access to some of these services and a basic level that would restrict access to only static content. As long as the consumer is informed, that seems to be within the scope of this bill.
For gamers and virtual worlders, this means that under the provisions of this bill an ISP could choose to throttle traffic to game servers as long as they didn’t privilege certain game servers over others. The consumer might have to purchase a "gamers package" to get decent levels of access to your favorite shoot-em-up or virtual meet-up spot. Or, if they are lucky enough to have a choice, switch to another, more gamer-friendly broadband provider.
If you think this is unlikely, remember that AT&T has had in their longer term strategy to begin charging content providers for higher speed access to their customers. With millions of gamers logging millions of hours online, you can bet that Blizzard and Linden Labs would be getting a visit from the AT&T sales execs if last minute lobbying by Free Press, Move On and others had not forced AT&T to agree to Net Neutrality provisions in their merger with Bell-South in December.