Is secret favouritism ruining Net?

For the London Free Press – January 14, 2008

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Net neutrality is a topic that continues to simmer and remain a going concern for some Internet activists, while for others, including Internet service providers (ISPs), it’s a non-issue and something critics and fear-mongers are espousing to create problems.

Net neutrality is a principle, or code of ethics, for the fair and open operation of the World Wide Web. It focuses on the concern that ISPs are filtering or degrading certain content in favour of others.

In an example used by many advocates in various forms, net neutrality has been compared to the follow scenario:

“It would be like calling Joe’s Pizza and having the phone company tell you that since Joe hadn’t paid for guaranteed connections to you, that you’d have to wait three minutes before they’d put the call though — but you can talk to a Domino’s operator right now if you’d like.”

The web activists are concerned that the smaller content provider’s quality and access are being degraded by ISPs in order to service larger clients, or to favour the ISP’s own competing service.

There is also a concern by some that certain areas of the Internet, or certain ports or access points, are being restricted, due to what the ISPs call bandwidth management, but what web activists see as interference and non-neutral conduct.

One promoter of net neutrality is the foundation called People for Internet Responsibility. They have started an online blog called Net Neutrality Squad, at www.nnsquad.org, where people are invited to discuss what net neutrality is, what needs to be done and what kind of conduct needs to be halted.

This foundation is comprised of prominent members of the online world, including Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist.com, and Vinton Cerf, who is sometimes referred to as the “father of the Internet.”

At the core of this issue is the discriminating practice of traffic flow, as illustrated in the Joe’s Pizza example.

The practice of degrading VOIP traffic while promoting the ISP’s, or a third party’s service creates a false market, in that customers are left with little choice but to go with the larger ISPs and the services the ISPs favour, to be guaranteed the quality and service customers want.

ISPs tend to say this is not an issue, and talk about the need to shape traffic for efficient Internet operation. They tend to talk around, not about, the discriminatory accusations.

There is an ongoing push to create legislation to prevent the practice that net neutrality proponents abhor. So far, attempts to legislate controls in North America have been unsuccessful.

The push has even met with some resistance from the Net Neutrality Squad, who say there needs to be a consensus about net neutrality online before legislators can move in and take control.

It remains to be seen what will happen, but this matter will keep on simmering until some kind of manageable solution is achieved for all parties.

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