A broad-based coalition of community organizations, political action groups, education institutions and leading Internet thinkers today launched a campaign to preserve the principle of "network neutrality" on the Internet. Network neutrality means that no matter who you pay for Internet service -- whether it's a phone, cable, or other telco -- no matter which web sites you access, and no matter what content you're looking for, your Internet service provider (ISP) will treat that content the same.
The Save the Internet web site highlights the concern that:
The nation's largest telephone and cable companies — including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner — want to be Internet gatekeepers, deciding which Web sites go fast or slow and which won't load at all. They want to tax content providers to guarantee speedy delivery of their data. They want to discriminate in favor of their own search engines, Internet phone services, and streaming video — while slowing down or blocking their competitors.
The network neutrality issue has been hovering in the background for years, with occasional skirmishes whenever telcos seem to discriminate against particular services or content. But now the battle is kicking into high gear, thanks to a new piece of legislation that's about to face a vote in the House Commerce Committee. The Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act aims at some fundamental changes to the Telecommunications Act, including the introduction of an explicit prohibition against requiring carriers to provide neutral access to the Internet.
Maybe this seems like an abstract problem. That's what I thought, up here in Vancouver, until the issue of network neutrality hit home. My partner does a lot of work for trade unions, but during one of the most significant local labour disputes in recent memory, he was unable to access a pro-union web site from his office. It turned out that his company's Internet service provider, Telus -- not coincidentally, the company at the heart of the dispute -- had not only locked out its workers; it was blocking its customers' access to the pro-union site.
Happily, our home access was provided by the local cable monopoly, Shaw -- a liberal alternative to Telus, or so we thought. Shaw is now blocking competitors' access to its cable network by charging VOIP (voice over IP) customers of Vonage a $10 surcharge that doesn't apply to Shaw's own VOIP service. (And don't get me started on their Bittorrent throttle.)
For now, American consumers seem to be in better shape, thanks to the proliferation of telcos that offer competitive alternatives if any one provider seems to be bending the rules of neutrality. But that picture could swiftly change, if telcos start competing on the basis of which content or services each one best supports. Instead of a landscape of competiting carriers, consumers could face a range of apples-and -oranges choices that would make the curent dilemma of selecting a Medicare drug plan look like a no-brainer.