Thursday, January 06, 2011

Verizon, Google, and Net Neutrality

The idea of "net neutrality" is an important one. All ISPs (Internet Service Providers) work together in a collaborative way on the Internet. There are a few key points:
  1. ISPs and other Internet companies do not discriminate against each other's traffic (for example, Gmail won't block all email from Yahoo! accounts to try to convince people to use Gmail, and vice versa).
  2. Every Web site should have the same priority. In other words, pages from Amazon won't be transmitted before pages from some small Web site. This also his prevents companies like Comcast and Verizon (in my area) from trying to get exclusivity agreements with certain sites. For example, right now net neutrality would prevent Comcast paying YouTube a bunch of money in exchange for having faster YouTube connections (and effectively slowing Verizon customers). If they could do this sort of thing, it would make our lives as consumers much more complicated.
  3. Finally, in practice, this prevents Internet Service Providers from filtering our content and throttling certain types of downloads (for example, blocking or slowing down downloads from file sharing sites).
Note that this isn't the same as monthly download traffic caps, which some providers (such as Comcast) have, and others (such as Verizon FIOS) do not.

Anyway, one of my students (thanks, Kevin!) brought in an article (available here on PC World's Web site) last semester that details a Google/Verizon pact. It sounds great in theory, but there are some ideas that may be shady. First of all, though it says the Internet should maintain net neutrality, they include the phrase "lawful Internet content", which some people interpret as a way to stop file sharing. Secondly, they do not address wireless access, because they feel the market is competitive enough. Finally, there is a provision for a private Internet which would not be covered. Though this could be something positive (stuff like health care systems), others interpret this as a way companies might find a way to exploit and get around net neutrality.

It sounds bad, but a bigger issue is this is all informal as it stands, and companies can do whatever they want at the moment. Something needs to be in place and formalized, and as I've mentioned before, most of the people in Congress do not have a technology background. I just hope we do not find ourselves in a bad situation in five years because Congress got Rickrolled by Verizon and Google.

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