Can I Have Some Ice with that Web Site?

Chairman Mao is the red sun of our heartsCan you afford to fly business class?

Not many people can.

It sure looks nice up there. But it’s questionable whether the big seats, free booze and gourmet grub are really worth the expense. Those folks sure seem to enjoy themselves, though, while my legs cramp up and my stomach grumbles back here with the rest of the cattle.

There aren’t many places in the modern world you can still find people so distinctly segregated. It’s likely, though, that soon we’ll soon have a similar situation online.

Many internet providers around the world are promoting the idea of a “two tiered” internet. This means that some information providers would pay a premium to reach users more quickly and effectively while unsubsidized information would take much longer to download.

Possibly some information wouldn’t be available at all.

For example, Yahoo! might pay Bell a premium fee to reach its Sympatico internet users more effectively than Google.

The result? Google searches would take much longer to execute than those performed using Yahoo! and Gmail users would experience delays in receiving messages.

Independently published information, such as personal blogs and podcasts, would take even longer to load, with some being blocked completely at Bell’s discretion.

The idea of segregating and even blocking access to information goes against the very spirit of the internet. Designed as an open tool for the unbridled delivery of information, the internet’s roots have grown deep into the soil of egalitarianism from which it was born. This is “net neutrality” – the idea that the global internet doesn’t discriminate against user, provider or information.

Corporate interests are pushing to uproot this tremendous tool and metamorphose it into a two-headed insect that would serve some well even as it bit the mouse of those less fortunate.

Some Canadian internet providers are already displaying patterns of behaviour that demonstrate their interest in a two-tiered internet.

Shaw Cable, for example, offers users a premium service designed to boost their voice-over-IP traffic above other forms of internet data. In addition, Shaw blocks all peer-to-peer file sharing traffic that uses BitTorrent.

During a recent labour dispute Telus blocked access to a union-friendly web site called “Voices for Change,” along with hundreds of other web sites that shared the server.

Canada’s largest cable ISP, Rogers, has acknowledged that they use “traffic shaping” to control and even block low priority data such as BitTorrent traffic and iTunes podcasts.

Even in the Yukon there are countless unconfirmed reports of the ISP arm of WHTV blocking traffic to popular peer-to-peer file sharing services such as BitTorrent.

Canada’s largest ISP, Bell Sympatico (which is marketed and sold in the North by Northwestel) recently fell afoul of privacy advocates for a significant alteration to its user agreement. The modification arguably opens the door for Bell to monitor content it delivers to users and share it with government agencies without any judicial oversight.

Some are even interpreting it as a policy change that signals Bell’s interest in increasing control of content delivered via its network, the first step towards a two-tiered internet.

The argument for a two-tier internet is clearly one of economic benefit for large ISPs. By extinguishing the concept of net neutrality, a new revenue stream can be introduced that would tap both users and content publishers simultaneously. Users will pay more to get the content they want, and publishers will pay more to reach their intended audience.

Considering the massive, unregulated control that corporations hold over the internet’s technical infrastructure, it was really only a matter of time before they sought to extend that control to the data they were handling. When you consider the enormous value of the information circulating across this vast medium, it’s a natural move. But that doesn’t make it right.

To protect the public interest and the true value of the internet, it’s important that regulatory bodies step in and set parameters around the rights of network carriers to manipulate and control data traffic. Net neutrality must be maintained and ISPs should have to seek regulatory approval to alter the flow of data. In Canada, the CRTC needs to work to ensure that all data is treated equally and that citizens’ access to information is not negatively affected by corporate profiteering.

Without such regulation, it’s only a matter of time before many of us are relegated to the steerage section on the information airplane, for the internet will no longer be an open highway, but an enclosed space with limited resources strictly controlled by a service provider. We’ll suffer through free, chintzy news clips and be required to pay more for the best information. We’ll only have access to our local passengers and if we want to talk to someone on another plane, we’ll have to use those crappy seat-back phones that cost an arm-and-a-leg per minute.

Oddly, it sounds like the early days of online, when companies like America Online, Compuserve and Prodigy ruled the roost with proprietary, closed networks. We can’t trust the world’s large ISPs to save us from going full circle back to those dark times; let’s hope the government has enough sense to step in an save the internet from extinction.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, July 7, 2006.

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