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Summary:

There are days when words fail me. On those days I just read folks like David Isenberg. On his blog, he makes an eloquent and compelling case for network neutrality, and comes out swinging against the oxymoron that is tiered Internet. Telephone companies are fighting back. […]

There are days when words fail me. On those days I just read folks like David Isenberg. On his blog, he makes an eloquent and compelling case for network neutrality, and comes out swinging against the oxymoron that is tiered Internet.

Telephone companies are fighting back. They have declared their intent to know what travels on their networks and charge discriminatorily based on this knowledge. They have pushed US courts and the FCC to decide that the Internet is an information service but not essential infrastructure, so gatekeepers can decide who has privilege to use their network.

He rails against the legislation that is ill-defined such as the e911 rules, and worries, that innovation is at risk.

They have shaped legislation before the US Congress that would protect telephone company Internet systems with special carve-outs for voice and video services, but burden innovators with federal registration, connection by private commercial arrangement or the threat of banishment to left-over, unregulated, spare capacity.

At issue: Is Internet access a freedom or a privilege? Just as Freedom of Speech means that, with very few limitations, nobody has the right to tell somebody else what to say, so should Internet freedom mean that gatekeepers should not control Internet applications or content.

  1. Is Internet access a freedom or a privilege? That is a very good question, because quite a lot of things in this country are not actually rights, but that doesn’t keep people from thinking that they have those rights.

    Is Internet access a right? Is it free for very low-income users? Did those pipes just pop up overnight at no cost? Shouldn’t the people who invested dollars in the building of those networks have a right to profit from those pipes? Shouldn’t they have a right to decide what happens over their own property? Should they be forced to carry traffic that hurts their own business model?

    Seems to me that it’s pretty easy to make money and innovate when you can use someone else’s infrastructure to sell your product. Create a file-sharing program to distribute someone else’s content and of course you will become popular. Create a phone system that uses the customers computer and broadband connection and of course it will be unique. Sell VoIP service as a replacement for regular phone service yet ignore the requirements that current providers are constrained with and of course it will be cheaper and attractive, but a headline or two in the Wall Street Journal about customers not getting through to 911 will hurt. I could make money selling 3 beers in Wrigley Field if the Cubs would let me, but I don’t think that is going to happen anytime soon. I could also make money selling that same beer to 17 year olds, but that probably shouldn’t happen either.

    Tiered Internet as a ridiculous thought? I know there is a lot of dark fiber out there so potential bandwidth is unlimited. Course that ignores the fact that it costs a lot of money to light that fiber. Would I want to light that fiber if I can’t expect to be paid for it? How happy will a consumer be if a VoIP subscriber goes to dial 911 (assuming that the provider actually lives up the requirements) yet the call does not go through because their neighbor is downloading a movie? Will the Wall Street Journal write that one up as “consumer dies, but net neutrality is upheld? Will the FCC be OK with that? Will other consumers? (I know, hype, but we have already seen what happens when 3 such cases happen.)

    The FCC should act to protect consumers. If SBC puts the clamps down on their pipe, doesn’t the consumer have a few choices? Can’t they vote with their wallets? DSL, Cable, Wireless, Broadband over Power lines, seems to me there are choices. Oh, and don’t high prices and bad service generate opportunities for innovation for substitutes?

    I read a study today that said wireless executives believed growth in the mobile music industry is being limited by content owners expecting to high a percentage of the profit. Gee, if I could sell someone else’s product at a great discount, I bet my growth potential would be pretty great!

    Just some random thoughts about the topic, but when people start talking about rights, I really wonder. Do we have a right to healthcare in the US? Personally, I would rather have good healthcare over Internet access, but there are some that say that there is no good healthcare for those that can’t afford to pay. QoS is an important topic, but like healthcare, there is no baseline that people can expect, be it healthcare or internet access. Just my 2 cents.

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  2. Germany Australia and others told their telco industries they are just network providers and they aren’t allowed to have walled gardens or screw around with customers/content providers. Why is it the US telco’s think they are so special? They make billions a year in profit and yet they want more. They charge the highest connection fees in the world and yet they want more. When will the madness end?

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  3. Great and timely issue to raise. Thanks.

    I was at one of those panels where a group of hyper-online teens (Stanford undergrads in this case) speak about how they live their lives online. I asked them whether they thought the internet was a right or a privledge. Amazingly, all five of them said they didn’t understand the point of the question and not one of them answered it.

    Whether the internet is a right or privledge or freedom, I can’t really say. But I can say I think it’s a privledge that should be the right and a freedom of all people.

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  4. For a full backgrounder on the net neutrality issue check out the camapign I just posted at http://www.freepress.net/deadend.

    The threat to the freedoms of the Internet, as we have come to know them, is real. Our best course of defense is through a public pressure campaign against Congress and the FCC.

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  5. Will Congress/FCC allow an infrastructure owner to hold the rest of the economy hostage, to let them selectively demand an extra piece of the value created by using that infrastructure, (“or else..”) on top of their normal service bill? That’s shooting in your own foot with a bazooka…..

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  6. Here in Norway all copper access lines are unbundled. The Norwegian equivalent of the FCC has told the incumbent to lease the copper to competing ADSL providers for a fee of about $7 per month per line (or some such figure). We have dozens of companies offering ADSL anywhere in Norway. If someone like the incumbent, say, decided to charge differently for different types of internet traffic, it would not be a problem since those prefering a flat fee offer would likely still be able to find one.

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  7. I don’t believe that the RBOCs are looking to route or prioritize based on content. That is an obvious bag of worms and moves the carrier down the road to being a party to the content (think porn, scams, etc…) These guys have a long history of trying to separate themselves from the end user communications.

    What I suspect that they are looking to do is to assign routing priorities based on traffic type or end points. Now in some cases this could end up being effectively the same as routing based on content – but it is a much more defensible practice or methodology.

    This issue looks a little to me like the issues associated with deciding whether to offer Peering to another ISP. The RBOCs will have the most influence with those content providers that are smaller. I assume that smaller content providers that need premium routing to an ISPs customers will end up being treated as a “customer” of the ISP rather than a peer. The largest content providers (e.g. Google) will end up more like an ISP peer. This could accelerate some of barriers to entry for content providers that require real-time or large bandwidth to customers.

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  8. Isenberg

    David Isenberg has a gift.  Put a pen in his hand, and eloquence flows.  His latest argument for net neutrality is one of those pieces.  He rails at the phone companies, worries that innovation will die, and finishes with
    If the United...
    
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  9. Jesse Kopelman Tuesday, January 24, 2006

    Markus, the difference between US carriers and European ones is that the US government is not the largest shareholder in the US carriers.

    To me, the big issue is not tiering, but blocking. The internet is IP, not circuits, so just giving some traffic priority over others does not necessarily hurt the others. If the pipe is big enough, everyone will still get through in a timely fashion. In my mind this is not an issue of HOV versus normal lanes on the highway, but more like some people having EasyPass/FastLane while others must stop to pay tolls (i.e. only when there are bottlenecks like toll plazas does this have any effect on drivers). What I am scared of are carriers going the “Chinese” route and just cutting off all access to certain parts of the internet that they don’t like for whatever reason. While I can understand the concern that packet-prioritization is a slippery slope to a walled garden approach, I am concerned that too much fuss over one will allow the other more serious problem to slip through the back door. So, lets be clear about what we are concerned about when we say tiering; are we talking about walled gardens or just packet prioritization? Me, I’m fine with packet prioritization, but I will not stand for walled gardens.

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  10. [...] Om Malik has an interesting question on his site: Is Internet access a freedom or a privilege? [...]

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