3/12/10

By Michael Tinmouth

The internet is an integral part of our daily lives, one we often take for granted. It has transformed how we work, communicate, manage our lives and socialize.

As our dependence upon the net has increased, so our relationship with it has increasingly been monetized with companies wanting a larger slice of an ever-expanding marketplace. To date the internet has been governed by a so-called 'first amendment'; a founding philosophy of the world wide webs developers that the internet is a neutral and level playing field. Accordingly, current net users get access to any web site on an equal basis. When you type in a search on your browser, irrespective of whether they are a foreign or domestic site, a big corporate multi-national or an independent blogger all appear on a user's screen in the same manner.

'Net neutrality' is thus based on the principle that all companies providing Internet service should treat all sources of data equally, i.e. that regardless of the size of your business or the depth of your wallet the net provides equality of opportunity. Under that philosophy, individual Internet service providers (ISPs), search engines and major online services like Yahoo, Safari or Google cannot restrict or filter a user's access to rival companies, so for example Google, cannot prevent one of its subscribers from receiving an email from a Yahoo account. Thus penniless entrepreneurs have the same ability to reach audiences as do multinational companies and that providers can't censor content whether by competitors or users expressing First Amendment-protected views. As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski puts it, the goal is "to ensure the Internet remains a free and open platform that promotes innovation, investment, competition, and users' interests."

The status quo was however thrown into doubt by a US federal appeals decision in April 2010 that restricted its authority over broadband services. Until that point the US's FCC defended the ‘net neutrality' principle but when the agency took action to sanction Comcast for deliberately slowing down traffic from Bit Torrent, the federal court ruled it did not have the authority to do so, thus ending the FCC's power to protect net neutrality as standard.

The result has been a growing debate over whether internet service providers can give preferential treatment to content providers who would be permitted to pay for faster transmission, or indeed to prioritize their own content. The result would in effect create a two-tier internet, with service providers able to block or impede competitors content or restrict controversial points of view.

Such a system would create an Internet highway, with a fast-lane and slow-lane and last week, Ed Vaizey the UK Communications Minister appeared to back a two-tiered internet, only to apparently back-track after a high profile differing of views with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web.

In his original speech, Vaizy seemed to suggest that some traffic management, where traffic from one source is favoured over another, is likely to be allowed in a move backed by the EU but with greater transparency to ensure the internet remains "open". In that speech he said one possibility of letting the market develop its own solutions means it could evolve into a "two-sided market where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service."

However when Vaizey later spoke to The Telegraph he said that "people are already entitled to choose the speed of their connection, but we're not saying one ISP should be able to prioritise one provider's content over another and I don't support the commercial decision to downgrade a rival's site." Mr Vaizy later told The Guardian newspaper that "I say 'don't block input' [to the internet]. It's my first principle," adding that he those criticizing his change of tact hadn't read his speech and that "I say the same as Berners-Lee." Responding to the ministers latest comments, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was however less sure, adding that whilst "there's no passage in [Vaizey's] speech where he says he's against net neutrality... we have discussed it on the phone. But I can't say yet that we're entirely in line."

It remains to be seen what the outcome is likely to be although, the EU's middle ground stance appears the most likely. Supporters of an enshrined principle of net neutrality continue to argue that removing the philosophy would endanger what is an innovative and dynamic ecosystem. Neutrality champions say that an independent ecosystem enables huge public value and that commercialization could pose critical risks if network operators are allowed to use traffic management to become gatekeepers to the internet.

Opponents of net neutrality who include major Internet service providers, pay for view television companies and large commercial websites argue that website owners shouldn't be legally forced to receive or transmit information from competitors or other websites they find objectionable. They believe that net neutrality is an unrealistic goal and that government control over the Internet's basic network could ultimately lead to increased censorship and invasion of privacy. They point to the fact that most ISPs already carry out some form of traffic management to ensure the smooth running of their networks and this hasn't impacted on competition or consumer rights. They also point to the rapid expansion of mobile and wireless networks and the massive investment needed to sustain development and that ISPs must be free to raise revenue to fund innovation.

The outcome of a week of back-tracking and side stepping is that the future of the internet remains no clearer, it remains for now at least a battle-ground of ideology as much as of establishing a ‘Constitution' to govern the web. But with regulation and government intervention comes risk. As the old adage goes, "Be careful what you wish for - you might get it, and wish you hadn't."

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