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Keeping the net neutral

Last Updated May 18, 2006

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Imagine if on your home internet connection, Google search results were a little sluggish while Yahoo results were nice and quick. Or downloading a movie trailer from a website took just a few seconds, but sharing a home movie over a peer-to-peer file-sharing network took much, much longer.

On the other hand, imagine if the government, rather than network admins, decided how traffic on the internet should be handled. And the costs of the next, higher-speed internet connections were borne entirely by consumers, and the companies that profit from all that bandwidth got a free ride.

These are the competing doomsday scenarios for the future of the internet on the opposing sides of an issue called net neutrality.

The proponents of net neutrality, such as SaveTheInternet.com, say it's the First Amendment of the internet and it ensures a level playing field so that the newest blog is just as easy to view as the biggest corporate website.

Its detractors say net neutrality is just code for more government regulation of the internet that would stifle innovation and introduce bureaucratic red tape.

For and against

That point of view is put forward in a seemingly amateurish web cartoon found at DontRegulate.org.

I say "seemingly" because the people behind the cartoon are from Hands off the Internet, apparently a grassroots group of internet users who are against government regulation. I say "apparently" because the group's member organizations include AT&T and Bell South.

Opponents of laws mandating net neutrality also include a group of telecom hardware suppliers, including 3M, Cisco Systems, Corning and Qualcomm, who sent a letter to the U.S. Congress Wednesday opposing any such laws.

That's not to say that net neutrality doesn't have big corporate backers, too. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo all support it, as do e-commerce giants EBay and Amazon.com and voice-over-internet (VoIP) companies Skype and Vonage.

Of course, each camp accuses the other of supporting positions on net neutrality that increase their own bottom line.

When the net isn't neutral

For the most part, the internet is currently neutral. Bits of information are treated equally, whether it comes from a website, a chat program, a computer game or a peer-to-peer file sharing system.

However, there are some instances where some bits haven't been as equal as others.

One example net neutrality advocates cite occurred last summer, when Telus blocked its customers' access to a site run by the Telecommunications Workers Union, which was on strike at the time.

Another is a dispute between Shaw Communications and Vonage Canada over VoIP. Vonage accused Shaw of charging a "thinly veiled VoIP tax" when it offered its customers that use VoIP enhanced service for an extra $10 per month.

These are likely the two examples "from Canada" that the DontRegulate cartoon mentions, but SaveTheInternet cites two others: AOL blocking e-mails that mention a website critical of its policies, and an ISP in North Carolina blocking rival VoIP services.

As well, Rogers Cable and Shaw use "traffic shaping" to prioritize some internet activities, such as web surfing and e-mail, over others, such as peer-to-peer file swapping.

Neutrality and the law

Internet law Prof. Michael Geist of the University of Ottawa says that at least one claim of the HandsOff lobby is true. Geist says if you want to have assurance of net neutrality, then, yes, government regulation of the internet is required.

"There is intent on the part of ISPs to not treat their networks neutrally," he said in an interview. "Canadian law currently doesn't clearly mandate net neutrality."

A bill before the U.S. House of Representatives, called the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006, is the centre of the debate in the country.

An amendment to the act, which would have mandated net neutrality, was defeated in committee in April. Another bill has been introduced, this one in the U.S. Senate, to ensure neutrality.

Some supporters of net neutrality are also wary of government regulation. The net neutrality recommendations from the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California call for "light touch regulation," with an emphasis on "prompt enforcement of general principles of competition policy, not detailed regulation of conduct in telecommunications markets."

But if you found out that your ISP was charging extra to use a competing VoIP service or "shaping" its net traffic to benefit a search engine that paid for the favour, couldn't you just switch internet companies? Wouldn't market pressure ensure net neutrality?

"If we were in a truly competitive environment then, yes, competition would take care of it. But in broadband, Canadians either have two choices or no choice," said Geist.

When there are only two companies providing broadband internet in a certain area, Geist said, "they tend to move in lockstep, so I have no confidence that competition is an option."

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