No Tolls on Information Highway

How much would you be willing to pay to use Facebook? What about YouTube, Twitter or your standard e-mail provider?

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the Federal Communications Commission does not have the jurisdiction to stop big cable companies such as Comcast from slowing down the Internet speed of heavy users. This ruling opens the door for cable companies to charge different amounts for access to certain Web sites. This ruling may result in a slippery slope of unequal access to the Internet.

Net neutrality, as defined in a recent Los Angeles Times business article, refers to the idea that an Internet service provider should be blind to the information being accessed by your computer. This principle holds that your service provider should not give preferential routing (and thus higher speed) to one Web site over another – Google versus Bing, Yahoo! or any other search engine, for example. So if your e-mail address is linked to Google and not Yahoo!, you might end up paying more.

This “network management” is how Comcast explains how they throttled Internet traffic from BitTorrent, a Web site used to download movies and other large files, is essentially corporate control of what is considered free and equal space.

The Internet is a space for knowledge and information. Blocking or limiting quick and equal access to that information is unethical. This is especially true in the case of Comcast, whose attempt to acquire NBC may result in a supercharged speed for Hulu (which is partially owned by NBC) for its customers, while Youtube is “managed” to run at a glacial pace.

The danger of the legality of this type of management is that Internet customers are forced to pay more for faster speeds and better service. This eliminates the freedom of egalitarian sites such as Youtube, where anyone can upload a video with equal access, and favors sites run by large cable companies.

The issue comes down to consumer choice in cable companies and Internet providers. While we are essentially “free” to pick whichever site we want to visit, if we want to watch a video quickly, we’ll go to the site that loads the video faster. So if Youtube is taking ten minutes to load a three-minute video and Hulu will load instantly, our choice is essentially eliminated. Consumers want or need to see the video, so they will visit the site that actually loads it.

It is similar to the Internet provider situation in Irvine, where residents of apartment homes are technically free to choose whichever Internet provider they see fit, but all apartments are already wired for (the very pricey) Cox Cable. If a resident wants AT&T, Verizon or Yahoo!, he or she must pay to get the apartment rewired. So while the freedom to choose technically exists, it is greatly limited.

Soon, with a boost from the ruling by the Court of Appeals, the same may be true of Internet sites. Be prepared to start paying for that Facebook page, Anteaters.

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