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From time to time, I’ll give an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and take action. I’ve already covered micro-blogging and Twitter, citizen journalism, the mobile web and other topics. This week I’ll look at Net neutrality.

Background

Net neutrality or network neutrality means that Internet service providers (ISPs) such as cable and telephone companies must treat all traffic equally that travels across their networks. That means that your broadband service provider couldn’t block you from seeing a particular site or using a high-bandwidth service arbitrarily.

While most Net users would want that freedom preserved, the ISPs believe that legislation or regulation would inhibit their ability to maintain speedy service for everyone and they have fought various bills before Congress that would enshrine Net neutrality. The ISPs point to a small percentage of bandwidth hogs who use file-sharing, video and gaming sites that slow down networks for everyone else.

In the history of the commercial web, the U.S. government has tried to keep the new medium unfettered by regulation to allow greater innovation. While telephone operators have been considered “common carriers” similar to public utilities and can’t give preferential treatment to any calls, cable TV and broadband services are treated as “information services” and don’t have to abide by common carrier regulations. That created two different sets of rules for telco-run DSL broadband and cable modem broadband.

All that changed in August 2005, when the FCC ruled that both cable and DSL broadband should be considered information services instead of common carriers, but must abide by four principles similar to Net neutrality:

(1) consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice
(2) consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement
(3) consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network
(4) consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers

Since then, seven bills have been introduced before the U.S. Congress to create Net neutrality rules, but none of them have become law. (Wikipedia has a nice rundown on the fate of six of those.) The most recent bill, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, includes no regulation or penalties, but only guiding principles similar to what the FCC had proposed. A Republican Congressman, Chip Pickering, who previously opposed past Net neutrality measures, has signed on as a co-sponsor for this bill.

Dueling Sides in the Debate

In the past few years, there has been heated rhetoric on the issue of Net neutrality, with technology companies, prominent lawyers, politicians and pundits lining up on either side. At one point, the MediaShift blog and many others were treated to a “sock puppet” campaign, possibly by the ISPs, to make it look like average folks were opposed to Net neutrality by leaving various comments to that effect. Meanwhile, consumer groups and major Internet content companies such as Google and Yahoo lined up in favor of Net neutrality legislation.

Here’s a basic rundown of the two sides:

For Net Neutrality

Viewpoint: Because of a lack of regulation, the cable and telephone companies that provide broadband Internet service are going to take away our freedom to see whatever site we choose online. They will create a system of haves and have-nots, where the content sites that pay more get faster performance, and the ones that don’t will slow to a crawl. This new tiered system will put small businesses and average folks in a bind, because they don’t have alternatives to the major ISPs to get broadband access. To preserve our freedom and choice as Netizens, the U.S. Congress must pass Net neutrality legislation.

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Major players: FreePress.net, Craig Newmark of Craigslist, American Civil Liberties Union, Google, eBay, InterActive Corp., most Democratic lawmakers

Websites: SavetheInternet.com, Open Internet Coalition

Quotable: “Through a combination of forces — including remarkable innovations in technology, surging consumer demand, industry consolidation and policy mistakes — the U.S. Internet has arrived at a volatile moment. Decisions we make about our right to communicate right now will have an impact on our economic and civic life and social health for generations to come.” — Tim Karr, FreePress.net, on the SavetheInternet blog

Against Net Neutrality

Viewpoint: The Internet has thrived due to unfettered competition and a lack of regulation by the government. The free market has helped create a competitive landscape where broadband providers must play fair — or they will lose subscribers. Any attempt to create Net neutrality legislation will end up costing the ISPs and indirectly consumers and will stifle future innovation. It’s better to let ISPs figure out the bandwidth issues, charge people appropriately and shepherd Internet traffic appropriately so all customers are served fairly.

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Major players: Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Hollywood studios, most Republican lawmakers, Bush administration

Websites: NetCompetition.org, Hands Off the Internet

Quotable: “Government’s role here, properly understood, is not to tell Comcast how to manage its network. Rather, it is to make sure consumers have alternatives to Comcast if they are unhappy with their Internet service. Today, almost everyone in the country has the choice of receiving Internet service from a cable provider or from a phone company. And the percentage of people who don’t have that choice is shrinking rapidly.” — Wall Street Journal editorial

In reality, Net neutrality is a much more complex subject than being about “choice,” “freedom” or “too much regulation.” There are many legitimate reasons why an ISP should treat some network traffic differently, whether it’s viruses or spam or a hacker attack. The idea of treating every packet on the Internet exactly the same is as idealistic and unrealistic as believing that free markets will make sure ISPs never misbehave or act unfairly.

Cases of Discrimination

In the absence of legislation, ISPs have been free to regulate Internet traffic as they wish, and there have been some problems with sites being blocked or traffic slowed arbitrarily. Here’s a rundown of prominent incidents:

> Last summer, AT&T turned off the audio on Pearl Jam during a webcast of a Lollapalooza performance where lead singer Eddie Vedder was railing against President George Bush. AT&T said it was a mistake.

> Verizon Wireless would not support text-messaging for the abortion rights group, Naral Pro-Choice America, saying it did not have to run messages from groups it considered “controversial or unsavory.” After the bad publicity, Verizon backed down.

> Bell Canada started “throttling,” or slowing web access for people using BitTorrent and other file-sharing services, not only slowing their own users’ Net access but the access for people using other ISPs that use Bell Canada’s lines. The practice happened right as the CBC started using BitTorrent to stream its new series, “Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister.”

The latter incident comes on the heels of Comcast throttling people using BitTorrent in the States, which exploded all over the media as a Net neutrality flashpoint. In fact, the FCC started a series of hearings over the issue of Comcast throttling, leading the cable giant to settle with BitTorrent, with a promise to work more openly with companies rather than throttling behind the scenes.

The FCC had a hearing on the matter in February at Harvard, and will be having another hearing at Stanford tomorrow, April 17. If Comcast’s actions throttling access weren’t bad enough, the company also took heat for paying people to take up many seats at the Harvard hearing room, leaving some Net neutrality proponents outside.

Overseas Net Neutrality

While the issue of Net neutrality has mostly played out in the U.S., other countries are starting to grapple with ISP throttling and other issues relating to bandwidth and tiered pricing and availability. As noted above, Canadians are now finding out about throttling by Bell Canada and are starting to take action, with a Facebook group called, Stop Bell from Throttling DSL Resellers garnering 1,300+ members.

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In the UK, the defining moment came last Christmas with the broad launch of BBC’s iPlayer, a streaming video service that allows people to watch any BBC TV show for free — and commercial-free — for up to 7 days after it aired. Quickly, ISPs started noticing large jumps in bandwidth usage by the public. One ISP in the UK, PlusNet, reported the following surge for January usage vs. December:

> 66% growth in volume of streaming traffic since 1st December
> 72% growth in the number of customers using over 250MB of streaming in a month since December
> 100% growth in the number of customers using over 1GB of streaming in a month since December
> Cost of carrying streaming traffic increased from £17,233 to £51,700 per month

The situation will only worsen with increased broadband demand, as the BBC plans to widen the scope of the iPlayer’s offerings, eventually including a lion’s share of all previous BBC TV programming on demand. In Australia, they are bracing for a similar situation to the iPlayer, with an online video-on-demand service called ABC Playback. “With the Net neutrality debate heating up overseas and poised to break here once ABC Playback gathers steam, now is surely the time to debate and settle the Net neutrality issue in Australia, rather than building new broadband infrastructure and fighting over the issue later,” wrote Simon Sharwood in TechTarget ANZ.

Resources

To read more about Net neutrality, check out these blogs, news articles and websites:

An Alternative to Net Neutrality at Wall Street Journal

AT&T — Say bad things about us and we’ll cancel your Internets at Scholars and Rogues

Big ISPs push P4P as substitute for net neutrality at Ars Technica

Is Google Changing Its Position on Net Neutrality? at GigaOm

FTC abandons net neutrality at VNUnet

Justice Department Nixes Net Neutrality at CBSNews

Network neutrality entry in Wikipedia

Network neutrality in the United States entry in Wikipedia

Net neutrality explanation on YouTube by Public Knowledge

Net neutrality explanation on YouTube by MadfishSam

Net Neutrality Hearing: When Is an Internet Traffic Delay O.K.? at NY Times Bits blog

Poll: Americans don’t want net neutrality at Ars Technica

Poll Finds Canadians Strongly Support Net Neutrality Legislation by Michael Geist

Save Internet freedom — from regulation by Larry Downes in News.com

Should the Net Be Neutral? at Wall Street Journal

The Bell Wake-Up Call by Michael Geist

What do you think about Net neutrality? Do you have resources that give other perspectives on the subject? Share your thoughts in the coments below.

Image of Net neutrality supporter by Joann Edmonds-Rodgers via Flickr.

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