Casting the Net

Imagine for a moment you own a popular nightclub in a major metropolitan city, and that most of your patrons arrive by public transportation — bus, taxi, et. al. How they arrive isn’t relevant to your business; after all, you serve drinks and provide entertainment, not a shuttle service.

One day, however, the owners of the taxi and bus companies meet with you and explain they are now going to charge you and your competitors to deliver people to your clubs. “Pay us $750 a month,” they say, “and customers get to your club faster.”

Do you accept this patent attempt at extortion? If none of the clubs pay, there’s effectively no difference. But what if one accepts? Taxis and buses that used to arrive in 10 minutes at your club now take 30 minutes to get there. The vehicles are the same, they’re just intentionally driving three times slower to get to your place. Business drops off until you find yourself paying $750 a month to a company that only delivers traffic to your door. Hey, count your blessings: you have the money to stay visible. Other clubs that were barely breaking even go under.

You might think, “Doesn’t the RICO Act protect against this level of racketeering?” Sure it does — unless the crime is government-sanctioned. In this case, it’s promoted by the taxi companies and their store-bought Congressional representatives as a way for businesses to pay their share of using public transportation — even though they didn’t contract to use it. Now apply this to the World Wide Web. How would you feel if AT&T shook down Google for an extra million so it would continue to load as quickly as competing Yahoo? Would you appreciate being locked off from ESPN because Earthlink has an exclusive arrangement with Disney and you’re stuck with Comcast?

Of course you wouldn’t — it’s a ludicrous situation that falls apart under scrutiny. But it’s also what could happen to the Internet if the United States Senate doesn’t enforce the concept of “net neutrality” upon the telecommunications industry.

What is net neutrality? In layman’s terms, it’s the idea that no matter what Internet Service Provider you have, you have access to the same Internet as everyone else. How’s this done? Providers allow one another to “peer” sites and bandwidth — and since getting from your computer to any given web site isn’t a straight shot but a labyrinthian journey through the Internet, you might “travel” through several different providers before you arrive at your destination.

Peering works because the traffic traded between ISPs generally evens out; equal amounts of bandwidth are used between Sprint and AT&T customers, for example. What would happen if this peering network collapsed? You wouldn’t be able to visit sites that weren’t immediately connected by your provider. This happened in 2005 when Cogent was shut off by rival provider Level 3; Cogent customers were unable to visit sites like the Drudge Report (perish the thought, I know). Net neutrality keeps this from happening.

It would also ensure your data speeds regardless of what site you’re visiting. If you paid your ISP for broadband, you should be able to visit all sites at broadband speed. Most sensible, though, is the idea that the companies who provide web content aren’t being charged to maintain your access. Given that they already pay a certain fee for the bandwidth they use, it stands to reason they shouldn’t have to pay for how you connect.

But why make sense when you can make a buck? That’s the basis of the Verizon and AT&T-backed Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act which sailed through Congress recently. It rejects net neutrality while promoting the kind of scenarios imagined above (an amendment by Representative Ed Markey ensuring net neutrality was roundly voted down). Should a compromise version of it pass through the Senate, the way the Internet functions will be irrevocably altered.

Imagine trying to use a voice-over-IP (VoIP) connection only to find it’s been purposely degraded because your ISP is about to launch a competing product? You’d have to shrug your shoulders in resignation and accept your ISP’s services or live with dropped and static-filled calls. Meanwhile, Amazon has raised prices and dropped free shipping for select items because it’s paying to ensure that all of its customers can visit its site. And they’re not paying to just one company, they’re paying to every ISP that chooses to regulate how their bandwidth is used.

What does this do to web content? Imagine an Internet with far fewer chat rooms, porn sites and controversial material. With the collapse of net neutrality the loss of common carrier arrangements can’t be far behind. What does that mean? It means an ISP with a largely Christian user base might add pornography, sensitive material or Muslim sites to its blacklist. It could also mean that a company with affiliations with a politician might slow down his opponent’s web sites or ban any sites that discuss him in a disparaging light. Worldwide users will face similar perils as well when the ISP they use doesn’t make arrangements through American providers. This is not just a “local” issue.

In the end, who benefits from this arrangement? Large multinational telecommunications companies. Who loses? Everyone else. The companies who trade business on the Internet lose because they’re either paying to maintain a level of service we already have or they’re losing customers to competition because they won’t cave. And customers of those businesses are forced into tiered programs that inevitably cost more in the long run with a lower rate of return. But I’m not surprised that Congress would reject net neutrality given their voting habits and their complete ignorance on all things technological.

Sites like eBay, Google and Amazon waged a battle on Capitol Hill promoting net neutrality, and while I can’t dismiss the obvious benefits they reap by keeping the Internet as it is, I can’t deny that it benefits users as well. The Internet doesn’t need its infrastructure bolstered by the backs of thousands of companies and millions of users while the telecommunications business receives massive government subsidies to expand its power.

“I’m against regulating the Internet except in the case of network neutrality,” says Chris Peterson, a web developer and former ISP employee. “That’s the paradox — with network neutrality, you regulate deregulation in a sense.”

If you support an Internet that is currently free from the usual rape-and-pillage business model, contact your United States Senator today. Don’t live in the U.S.? E-mail friends who do. Make them aware of the problem. The telecoms are doing their best to downplay a this change in the nature of the Internet. They say there’s enough net neutrality protection in the bill they authored and rammed through legislation. Funny, they also said this:

“They don’t have any fiber out there. They don’t have any wires… They use my lines for free — and that’s bull … for a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these [publically-funded] pipes for free is nuts!”

That’s AT&T Chairman Edward E. Whitacre Jr. in the November 2005 issue of Business Week. He’s promising security and protection. He’s the man looking out for your best interests.

The battle for the way we connect globally is on. Don’t let telecoms recast the Net — support net neutrality today.