Selling Information

It’s clear people use the Internet more to gain information. You can find which cars have good or bad reviews, what the best program is for doing certain things, or what governments or companies are up to that are not always reported in mainstream media.

Companies like Google provide a gathering house of all the information available on the Internet. They offer this service freely to the public. However, as anyone who uses a search engine has noticed, you often have to wade through large quantities of information before you find what you’re looking for.

What would happen if companies could pay to have their search results show up before anyone else’s search results? What would happen if companies could pay to have other search results not show up at all?

These problems would be fairly visible when they occured, at least to the people who have information they would like to get out to the public. However, making the public aware of these problems is another matter.

But more subtly, larger Internet service providers have begun working to erode one of the fundamental underpinnings of the Internet: Net Neutrality.

Net Neutrality is more subtle than just making some information available, and other information hidden, based upon what people pay — though it certainly has the potential to do that.

Many of the large Internet service providers, particularly those that provide backbone network services like your telephone or cable companies, and the AT&T’s, want to start allowing people to pay more for “premium” network access. This means that a company who can pay fees to the network provider can have their content delivered “better” to people.

These companies when speaking with Congress claim that they are not discriminating – that they will not limit access to the Internet’s content. Then again, they do not explain what this “premium” access means, either.

As the Internet continues to utilize more technologies like Voice-over-IP and streaming video broadcasts, it becomes clear that more bandwidth is needed. The Internet service providers would like companies to pay for more than just bandwidth, they want companies to pay for priority bandwidth.

Already smaller companies, smaller organizations and just individuals sometimes have a hard time paying for the bandwidth they need to purchase to allow their messages “out” to the world. These Internet service providers propose now to make people who can pay more money able to have much better quality.

This may even seem sensible. However, many years ago the FCC ruled that phone companies cannot charge people extra to make sure that their calls go through. The have to offer telephone lines that are all equally likely to go through, and all have the same quality connections. That doesn’t mean that companies cannot pay for more lines if they need them. However, it does mean that the telephone company cannot sell different types of lines, some that work better and more often than others.

Eroding Net Neutrality is a means for Internet service providers to generate more money at the expense of our ability to access information without discrimination based upon ability of the information provider to pay.

Companies are always going to look for ways to make more money. I do not believe it is unreasonable that they are socially responsible in doing so.

Recently AOL announced plans to allow companies to pay them a fee to “bypass” the AOL email spam filters. Interestingly, a petition circulating to have them stop their move toward this policy became blocked by AOL mail servers.

Similarly, the Canadian version of AT&T, Telus, blocked all access to the website of a worker’s union that was striking against them.

Some local telephone companies who provide DSL services to homes have blocked their paying network subscriber’s access to Vonage, a Voice-over-IP telephone company.

Does it seem right that companies, people, organizations, or governments should be able to dictate which books are available in a public library? If not, does it seem right that these people or organizations should be able to dictate which books yellow and decay into invisibility, so that no member of the public would ever be able to read them anyway?

The Internet service provider industry claims that by allowing “premium” network services, they will be able to afford to upgrade the United States into the same quality of services that a large part of Europe already enjoys.

Others argue that doing so will limit new growth, and solidify the information industry into the hands of the people currently “owning” it, not to mention “coloring” knowledge.

Google testimony before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

National Cable & Telecommunication Association testimony before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

The New Yorker also has a good article: Net Losses

Moveon.org is even in this fray. They have some more information and a petition if you’d like to sign it.