Search giant Google, together with US telecoms firms Verizon, have almost convinced their country’s communications regulator, the FCC, to let them decide who gets the fastest internet access speeds.
You might think “who cares?”—but it is all part of their battle to control the internet. And, from a British perspective, they are the tail wagging all the communications watchdogs.
At stake here is “network neutrality”—a principle almost as old as the internet itself.
It should mean that you pay for a connection to the internet, perhaps with a monthly gigabyte usage limit, and everything else is between you and the websites. After all, we’ve already paid for most of the network infrastructure.
Abolishing network neutrality—making some sites faster than others if you pay—is simply a way to get more cash out of you for certain content. You pay a “premium rate” to remove entirely artificial restrictions.
You might’ve seen the edges of what’s at stake here if you’ve used the BBC’s iPlayer. When it launched, Internet Service Providers were horrified: here was a service that threatened to show up their piss-poor network connections.
Auntie, already paying huge amounts to be online and able to send its vast oceans of data, got asked to pay again. For what? You pay for phone line rental and a broadband subscription to get online—and the BBC already pays for a huge allocation of internet bandwidth.
The Beeb was offered the “chance” to pay extra cash to have its net traffic prioritised and it declined. But that the offer was even made should scare us. Take away the internet’s network neutrality, and you allow providers to engage in information highway robbery.
This may already be starting on mobile net access, but that is the thin end of the wedge.
Richard Stallman, the Free Software Foundation founder who believes computer software should be “free as in freedom”, puts it succinctly. “Network neutrality is imperative and we must preserve it regardless of the specific connection technology,” he says. “To abandon it for the newer and coming technology is especially dangerous.”
The situation today likely sees my geek hero of choice, Jon Postel, spinning in his grave so fast you could wrap him in copper wire and run a small town off the current.
Postel was the founding director of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), the independent organisation responsible for saying what goes where on the internet.
A few months before his death, he tried to wrest control of DNS (the thing that directs you to a website when you type in an address like www.google.com) away from the US government and hand it over to the public.
Unfortunately, he didn’t quite succeed.
Jon saw the internet as most people understand the postal service—simply a collection of packets to be delivered.
The very standards he helped devise set out what would go “first class” and “second class”. And it all worked—until Microsoft ignored the standards in their software and corporations started dictating how the web should work.
Now we are in a situation where oppressive laws like the Digital Economy Act—a crackdown on “copyright crime”—are passed on the nod. The “Liberal” component of Britain’s current coalition once promised to overturn it. Whatever happened to that?
The deception still continues that what you buy is “yours to own forever”, when in fact you’re renting your culture alongside your access to what should be a public library.
The iconic film 2001: A Space Odyssey was released the year before I was born. Both its director and writer are dead—but thanks to copyrights that long outlive people, you’ll still have to pay someone if you want a copy.
If they can break network neutrality then, soon, thanks to the hold the US and giant firms hold over the internet, it’ll cost you even more.