I’m listening to Free Press’s latest conference call on “network neutrality” policy issues, and I have to say it’s scary stuff. Laurence Lessig, Ben Scott and Jeff Chester outlined the machinations of the nation’s cable and telephone companies to challenge the fundamental “end-to-end” principle of the Internet.
As I understand it, the Internet as we know it was built upon the idea that the network is “dumb”, in the sense that it does not discriminate against one piece of information versus another one, it simply sends it along to where it wants to go. It’s at the “edges” of the network, the actual user’s computers, where the complexity and intelligence lies, where any discrimination and processing of the various bits of information occurs. So whether the “wires” of the internet are cable, telephone line, airwaves or donkey, they merely serve as neutral transfer media moving bits from one place to another.
This “end-to-end” principle has driven the enormous innovation and creativity that the Internet was founded on, from the HTML protocol devised by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN to video podcasting. Because the network is “dumb,” it does not have to be responsible for managing data from different applications in different ways — thus voice, video, graphics, text and code are all treated as the same bits of ones and zeros. This allows anyone to develop new applications and functionalities that could never have been foreseen by the current managers of the Internet.
But all this is challenged by cable and telephone companies seeking new ways to charge for “tiered” access to the Internet. Lawrence Lessig explains that the tiering goes on in a couple of ways. First, the companies would like the users to have different “silver,” “gold” and “platinum” levels of access, where the basic users might only have access to certain kinds of content (like certain sponsored sites and e-commerce portals) but couldn’t access resources the ISP didn’t want you to see. To get the “full” access to the internet, you would have to pay premium rates.
At the other end of the tiering, the ISPs would like to charge internet content providers for the “privilege” of pushing their content to their subscribers. A Verizon exec recently accused Google of “freeloading” on their wires while making money. They would clearly like to charge Google and other content providers large fees to access their subscribers.
At the end of the day, we might be seeing an increased “monetization” of packets of data where your internet access would be similar to your television. The basic level of access might give you a handful of advertising-crammed webpages and e-commerce sites. The secondary level might include audio and video from major content providers who have paid the ISP. But only at the “platinum” level of access could you access all possible information on the Internet.
This would effectively mean that webloggers, podcasters, alternative media sources, independent artists, and others outside the mainstream would be shut out of Internet 2.0.
Very frightening stuff. Time to raise some hell. Thanks to Free Press, Lessig, EFF and others for leading the charge.