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Last Updated: Sunday, 12 February 2006, 07:59 GMT
Why the net should stay neutral
Is it time to let internet companies provide premium access to paying websites and services? No, says technology commentator Bill Thompson.

Barge, Eyewire
The net should be like a canal and not care about what travels on it
One of those loud and angry debates that seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the world is currently playing out in the US.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation is considering making changes to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and one of the ideas being floated is that network providers should be allowed to offer preferential service to some of their customers instead of providing a neutral data carrier service.

Back in 2004, Michael Powell, at the time chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said that net service firms should support "network freedom" and ensure that their users could access all lawful content and attach whatever devices they want to their network connection without any discrimination.

Now some of the big telecoms companies want to be able to sell premium services for things like streaming video or voice over IP, and some people are worried that this will eventually lead to a segregated internet.

They include Lawrence Lessig, law professor at Stanford University, founder of the Creative Commons and one of the most significant and influential thinkers about the future of the network we have been building for the past 30 years.

It's a big issue.

After all, once we get away from the idea that the pipes just move bits around without really caring what data is being transmitted, it's a small step to discriminating against some forms of content and then targeting specific sites, services or users.

Instead of an "end-to-end" network, we would end up with something more like the phone network, along with a complicated array of charging schemes for "0800", "0845" and "0871" sites.

Those in favour of "network neutrality" and keeping the current model of the internet as just a data conduit include big hitters such as Google, eBay, Amazon and even Microsoft.

They know it will cost them more if they have to pay to get their video delivered to users.

The phone and cable companies want to be free to charge for new services and make more money, and they argue that it's not up to the government what they do with their networks.

Policy echo

This might not seem to matter to the rest of us, since the US no longer has the majority of network users, but of course business practices, technologies and even laws made over there tend to have a disproportionate impact on the rest of the world so we should pay attention.

Bill Thompson
Social justice is best served by ensuring that public utilities, of which the network is surely one, are regulated in the public interest.
Bill Thompson
We've already seen how the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a US law designed to protect the interests of large media organisations, resulted in the appallingly restrictive EU Copyright Directive. We don't want anything like that to happen this time.

This debate is happening now largely thanks to the internet's astonishing success.

The earliest packet-switched network connections, the ones that made up the early Arpanet back in the late 1960s, used telephone lines to transmit data between university campuses in California and Ohio.

But they used the network in the way that canal boats use water. A canal has no idea what is being carried in the narrow boats, and it doesn't really care. Until the 1990's the phone companies didn't really know or care what data was going over the leased lines they sold.

When dial-up access started to take off, there was a flurry of activity and attempts at control, all of which failed.

However, now all the telcos run their own networks using internet technologies and internet protocols and they want a piece of the action.

Charging differently for different content is not the same as turning the net into a toll road, open to all for a fee.

We already have that: if you choose to pay more you can have a fast broadband connection to your home; if you choose to pay vast amounts of money you can stream large amounts of data like Google or the BBC does.

Justice call

What is being proposed is more like building two roads into every town and up to every house, one smooth and well-maintained tarmac and the other a dirt track, and then letting Tesco and Waitrose bid for the right to use the good road.

Network cable, BBC
Previous attempts to set up a two-tier net have failed
This issue just the latest round of a long-running debate about how much government - of whatever type, in whatever country - should be involved in the growth and development of the internet.

Some, mostly libertarian conservative thinkers like those at the Cato Institute, instinctively oppose any and all regulation and want the free market to determine what services are offered, at what price and to whom.

Even those who remember that the net emerged from a publicly-funded attempt to build a high-speed data network choose to claim that the days of subsidy are now over and that only deregulation can offer real benefits, both to companies and to the wider society.

For them, any attempt to restrict the telephone companies' freedom to offer preferential service is tantamount to state socialism and one step away from a communist revolution.

Of course they are wrong, and badly so.

I'm a market socialist, and I believe that regulated markets are the best way to create social value. I have also been using the net since 1985 and I have seen it evolve and grow thanks to the balance between regulation and market forces. That balance has to be maintained.

Social justice is best served by ensuring that public utilities, of which the network is surely one, are regulated in the public interest.

Markets fail, and they do so in ways that any humane society must address. Ensuring that network access is available to all and that the network itself carries all lawful traffic is the only way forward.

We must just hope that the US government recognises that this is the case, and sets a good example to the rest of the world.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital

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