How would you feel if the phone company decided that your calls to
your friends and family are somehow less valuable than your calls to
800/900-numbers (which are more profitable to them) and as a result
decides that at times of high call volume, they will reduce the quality
of your connection to your friend and family (or even worse, just give
you the standard recording "all lines are busy, please try your call at
a different time")?
You would be upset, I am sure... But, you
don't really have to worry about it, because the phone company
common carrier) must adhere by
communication act enacted by Congress in 1934 and as
a result can't really differentiate between calls.
Now, how about if the phone company decides that calls
that carry conversations about (say) sports are less important that
calls that carry conversations about (say) politics? Well, they cannot
really do this because they can't listen in on a conversation (at least
not without a court order) to tell its content. So, we don't have to
worry about that.
But, in a world where "everything" (yes, including
voice) is represented and communicated using "bits" over the Internet (a
lot more about this later in the course), it turns out that both of the
above are possible. Why? Well, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) lobbied
hard in the late 1990s not to be classified as common carriers; they are
classified as "Information
the telecommunication act of 1996.
So, they can do what phone companies cannot do -- preferentially treat
one type of communication over another (e.g., connections to iTunes go
faster than connections to YouTube). Even worse, because they can tell
the content of a communication, they can preferrentially treat say web
access over voice (like your use of skype on iPhones --
here is an article about this when it was big news about a year ago).
This state-of-affairs has prompted a whole movement --
known as "Net
Neutrality" -- that is trying to make sure
that the Internet remains "open" and "democratic" in the sense that ISPs
do not preferentially treat various parties (or communications) based on
Here is a nice video about Net Neutrality (and why you should care).
Even Google (the self-annointed "be no evil" company)
seems to have crossed to the "dark side" by supporting a Verizon
is a recent article with lots of details). As
a matter of fact, this move by Google prompted Jon Stewart (one of my
favorite characters on TV) to bring it up in his Daily Show (see
Needless to say, there are many people against Net
Neutrality (including senators and top business people), who make fairly
decent arguments that Net Neutrality foes are quick to predict the
demise of the Internet if Net Neutrality is violated (see
So, here is my question: At the end of the day,
somebody will have to pay for the resources it takes to carry all these
bits around... If Net Neutrality is to prevail, society will have to
"pay" for it. If we do not like the "market" (supply and demand) to take
care of it, then we must be ready to tax ourselves to support an
Internet that is "open" and "democratic".
Is Net Neutrality worth the price, or are
proponents of Net Neutrality just too idealistic? What is its worth to
you? An extra $1 a month of a federal tax added to your ISP monthly fee?
$5? Is an open Internet too valuable to let capitalism take it over?
What about the impact on the rest of the world?