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March 1, 2006
By Khali Henderson
FOR THE PAST 18 MONTHS,
I have been thinking a lot about peer-to-peer traffic and how it might impact the many networks that combine to form the Internet. Understanding this kind of traffic can only continue to grow, I thought it could begin to burden the network without providing it with correspondingly more revenue. I asked a number of backbone carriers to go on record about the potential impact it might have on their facilities and what, if any, plans they have to monetize this traffic. Carriers all acknowledged their concerns, but none would tell me when or how their companies might address it.
Of course, the largest telcos and cablecos now have revealed their intentions. I predicted todays all-you-can-eat plans would be replaced with something more closely tied to bandwidth consumption. But I did not anticipate the Bells proposal, which goes beyond measuring usage to restricting access to content.
Certain content providers lets say deeppocketed corporations or advertisers would have first priority on our computer and television screens while other information like that from competitors or peer-to-peer communications would get a lower priority or even be blocked.
If you are a competitor reliant on Bell facilities, abandonment of common carrier obligations is plenty to get your attention. But the ramifications of ending the Internets neutrality and putting its control into the hands of just a few companies goes beyond destroying the business models of many innovative startups. It undermines information flow.
Control of the Internet, which in many ways is evolving as an interactive substitute for radio and television, will have far-reaching impacts on public discourse. (Think Media Ownership, The Sequel; its so scary because it could come true.) So, we may no longer be able to visit the blogs we like because they conflict with gatekeepers views. We may no longer be able to stream news that reports negatively about the gatekeepers company or its affiliates/supporters/advertisers. In other words, the public interest will be abandoned. It may seem like I am overreacting, here. But it is not unprecedented behavior for the Bells and cablecos, which have lobbied against public interest mandates requiring they provide for public access TV stations.
Opponents of net neutrality say it dampens investment in infrastructure, but that argument while accepted by the FCC when it recently lifted network-sharing requirements from Bell broadband pipes doesnt make sense. Says net neutrality advocate Lawrence Lessig in his blog of Jan. 13, Broadband is infrastructure like highways, if not railroads. If you rely upon markets alone to provide infrastructure, youll get less of it, and at a higher price.
And, its turning out, they may not take you where you want to go.
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