The Thinker

The Internet needs your help

What would you think if you picked up your phone, dialed a number and got this message?

“I’m sorry, but this phone company does not allow you to call this number. Have a good day.”

To suggest that you would be irate would probably be putting it mildly. You would probably say something like, “Don’t I pay the phone company $35 a month so I can access anyone in the telephone network? How dare they charge me $35 a month, yet will not let me call the number of my choice! What do they think this is, a totalitarian state?”

No, it is not totalitarianism. It is called capitalism in its latest and ugly modern manifestation. Because in case you have not noticed, except for the phone wires inside your house, you do not own the telephone line. You pay that $35 a month to rent the phone company’s lines. They own it. You do not. If you do not like the situation, you are free to create your own telephone company, or if you are lucky, contract with another company.

Long ago, the government recognized that certain companies perform a public service. That is why they are regulated. The government ensures that your local phone company offers service on a non-discriminatory basis and that the phone company will put every call through.

Suppose you use your phone regularly for phone sex. You like to spend $3.99 a minute to dial 1-800-HOT-MAMA and get your rocks off. Suppose your phone company looked at all its customer records and noticed that 10% of all its calls were going to 1-800-HOT-MAMA. Then suppose it told the owners of Hot Mama Inc. that unless they rebated back to the phone company fifty cents a minute, every word that was spoken by either party would be delayed by one second. Would you also be irate?

Perhaps, but in this case you probably would not make your dissatisfaction public. Yet it is likely that after a few more calls to 1-800-HOT-MAMA, the programmed voice delays will take all the thrill out of calling them. However, one day you notice a circular in your phone bill. “Tired of the poor service with your phone sex company? Try 1-888-BIG-TITS. Only $3.99 a minute and no voice delay!” It would probably not take too long before you have changed phone sex companies. You probably would have no idea that the Big Tits Phone Sex Company sent your Baby Bell fifty cents for every minute you spent connected to it doing some heavy breathing.

At this point you are probably saying, “Yeah, so what? This is all hypothetical and I don’t do phone sex.” Yes, it is hypothetical in the case of our telephone service. However, it is not hypothetical in the case of your internet service. Because it turns out that if you have an internet service provider, there is a good chance that they want more profit than what they can make charging you $39.95 a month. After all, they have spent billions digging up lawns so you can have a high-speed internet service, and the profits have not quite been what they anticipated. Hmm, but maybe Yahoo Search, anxious for more customers of its own, will send your ISP one cent every time a user on your ISP’s network uses Yahoo Search instead of Google Search. Perhaps that is why responses from Google.com to your search queries have been getting so slow lately, but responses from Yahoo appear like lightning. It is too bad that you cannot hear those cash registers going ka ching every time you use Yahoo Search. That does not mean those registers are not ringing up sales.

Welcome to the Brave New Internet, which may soon resemble the opening to that sixties ABC TV show, The Outer Limits:

“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling the transmission. We control the horizontal. We control the vertical. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all you see and hear.”

In the case of America Online, it has already been there. Last month they prohibited their subscribers from going to dearaol.com. Apparently, someone set up a web site opposing AOL’s plan for guaranteed junk mail delivery. For a fee, AOL wants to allow junk emailers to put their spam directly into your inbox, whether you want it there or not. (With enlightened attitudes like this, it is no wonder AOL is bleeding customers.)

Other profit hungry ISPs are not quite so brazen. Verizon Communications, a high speed ISP in my neighborhood, recently knocked on my door to try to sell me its high-speed FiOS service, says its intentions are more benign. They want to offer services like movies on demand. They are worried that other internet content providers will also want to offer movies on demand, and will insist on the same quality of service as Verizon provides its customers.

I have no problem with Verizon or other companies offering movies on demand. I do have a problem though if their dedicated Internet bandwidth gives preference to their packets over preference to packets from unaffiliated providers. There are solutions to their so-called problem. One solution is to have two lines coming into your house, one for Internet content, and one for their own content. However, even that is not necessary. Since Verizon’s FiOS service works on an optical network, it is easy for network routers to allocate part of the spectrum exclusively for its own use, and part for Internet traffic. There is so much bandwidth on a fiber optic cable that no true high-speed internet service should be impacted. In this case though the portion of the bandwidth dedicated to their movies on demand could be for their unique content only. Yet if they are advertising three megabits per second of download speed to their internet service customers, those three megabits should be open to any lawful content available on the Internet on a nondiscriminatory basis.

I am sad to say that, not surprisingly, Congress so far has been bending over backwards to accommodate ISPs who want to establish quality of service preferences on their networks. This is simply wrong. Just as it is wrong for the phone company to take your money, yet not let you access a phone number you want, it is wrong for them to prohibit you from visiting sites you want to visit, or for them to deliberately discriminate against one provider for the benefit of their own preferred content providers.

While Occam’s Razor is probably not your favorite site, it is quite possible that this site, or even your favorite site, could suddenly be banned by your ISP and there would be nothing you or I could do to change it. I know I probably spend an hour a day reading the website Daily Kos. Right now, there is nothing to prevent my ISP, Cox Communications, from keeping me from accessing this website. (Lord, I hope Fox News does not buy them out!)

This fight is for network neutrality, and it is one we must win. The founder of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, said this just today:

“It’s better and more efficient for us all if we have a separate market where we get our connectivity, and a separate market where we get our content. Information is what I use to make all my decisions. Not just what to buy, but how to vote.”

You are reading this now because you value the Internet. It is in your interest to speak up now. You can start by taking a few minutes to contact your senators and congressional representatives. Perhaps your ISP will let your email go through, but they do not have to. For greatest impact though, it might be better and more effective to use the Plain Old Telephone System. It at least still lets you connect with anyone in the world. Let Congress know how you feel. Let your congressional representative know that you oppose H.R. 5252, the laughingly titled “Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006″. Tell them the watered down so-called “Net Neutrality” provisions are meaningless. Also, call your senator and ask them to support Senator Ron Wyden’s bill, the “Internet Nondiscrimination Act of 2006″.

If you have a choice in Internet providers, find out how they stand on Network Neutrality. I asked my ISP, Cox Communications. One of their Customer Care Supervisors responded when I wrote with (emphasis mine):

In response to your question about Cox Communications’ position on network neutrality, we currently do not have any plans to implement any type of tiered internet or filtering of content. Cox Communications wants what is best for our subscribers. Our customers can visit any legal web site they wish on our open network. We want to ensure that we are in a position to continue to provide our high speed internet service in the future. Cox Communications does maintain the right to manage our network as necessary. Per our subscriber agreement, we reserve the right to manage our network for the benefit of our customers. We will continue to manage our network in a way that benefits the vast majority of our customers and their growing need for bandwidth. We feel that Government regulation of Internet services would stifle innovation. It’s not in anyone’s best interest to stifle further innovation and investment – and government regulation of an industry typically does. Please do not hesitate to let me know if you have any further questions. Thank you.

This response is not exactly reassuring. While they have no current plans, they did not rule out any future plans. And by being against more government regulation, they also give themselves the freedom to restrict or tier content in the future. Let your ISP know you will put your money with ISPs that adhere to strict network neutrality.

For an easy way to find the names, addresses and phone number of your representatives in Congress, visit the Save the Internet website.

Please, take prompt action. What meaning does liberty really have if you cannot use it?

 

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