The digital divide and the end of Internet freedom

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Technology used by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and regulatory decisions have shaped the Internet in ways that create nuanced divisions in what people can access. According to a paper out Monday from The New America Foundation, the dangers of current evolution of the Internet are that the World Wide Web becomes segregated by what people are allowed to access and the cost of that access. It’s something I’ve been saying for years here in the U.S. when discussing the merits of using mobile broadband as an answer to the lack of real wireline competition, but the New America report takes it further.

It argues that issues such as packet blocking, different access technologies, broadband caps and cost all can widen the digital divide even if two areas have the FCC-sanctioned definition of broadband as offering 4 Mbps or more. For example, my uncapped 14 Mbps down cable connection for $45 delivers a much different experience than a 10 Mbps LTE connection for someone in College Station, Texas about 80 miles away. How so? My bandwidth isn’t capped and the price is fixed no matter how much I use it, while an LTE connection would cost $50 for 5 GB or $80 for 10 GB. And without wireless network neutrality rules, certain services could be blocked on the LTE connection. Both homes might have broadband, but they are very different connections.

But outside of that well-explored divide, the report charts a more pernicious problem associated with the web — namely the use of packet inspection to segment out certain bits of data for special pricing or for special treatment of the (positive or negative sort). This changes IP services that are all equal into unequal bits that ISPs can now control and charge extra for. I’m not sure I can buy 100 percent into the implicit argument that all packets are equal, when some packets (such as those for streaming video or voice packets) must be delivered in specific order that can be more challenging to maintain over a network, but I do think the trend toward segregating out applications and services is a dangerous one. From the report:

Metcalfe’s law assumes that a new network participant gains the benefits gleaned from other members. As we’re seeing today, however, command-and-control networks sustained by business models based on an all-powerful network operator are bleeding off these networks’ exponential benefits. Whereas such companies stand to gain enormous profits by commoditizing every form of communication possible, the inefficiencies these practices cause (in terms of lowered information flow, network congestion over centralized relay points, greatly lessened innovation at network edges, and so on) are coming at edge-users’ expense. Better technologies exist that would dramatically lower communication costs, increase adoption rates, and fuel new service and application development, and that are synergistic with pre-existing infrastructure.

The New American report looks at Wi-Fi and other technologies to set up local networks. It also goes into the role that devices that are controlled by OS manufacturers or hardware makers play in this lessening of both freedom and the widening of a digital divide between the web someone experiences on an Android phone and what someone experiences on an iPhone (or worse! a feature phone). All in all, it’s worth reading and then rereading as we consider broadband policy in the U.S. and the development of technologies that can help keep access available for all, but also enable everyone to have the same web experience.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tycho Moon

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