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ALTOM: How long will our 'Net neutrality last?

July 17, 2010

Cable giant Comcast has fanned a typical smoldering Internet grumble-fest into a major screaming match, complete with a lawsuit and cries for federal intervention. The outcome may affect how much it costs you and me to do business across the ’Net.

A large number of Americans depends on Comcast for Internet connection. Comcast is an Internet service provider, or ISP. Historically, ISPs considered themselves neutral conveyors of Internet “packets” of information. All Internet traffic travels in packets. The big spreadsheet you attached to an e-mail the other day went out as packets, not as a single file. It joined billions of other packets on the massive ’Net highway in one of mankind’s biggest yet most efficiently designed traffic jams. You can be a captain of industry, or just captain of the volleyball team. Either way, your packets mingle democratically, neither’s getting precedence over the other.

This is known as “’Net neutrality,” and there are a great many Internet gurus who are intent on keeping it neutral, both for ideological reasons and to control prices, so ISPs can’t set up tiered systems of packet prioritization that penalize customers who pay less, by sidelining their packets.

In addition, ’Net neutralists fear that a tiered system would lead to actual censorship by the few big companies that still provide connectivity. Because ISPs control the Internet choke points for so many users, it’s possible they could become the ’Net’s arbiters of good taste, legality and morality. ’Net neutralists have petitioned the federal government for legislation to protect neutrality.

Neutralists have feuded for years with others who contend that legally locking down neutrality will stifle innovations that could be based on discrimination, solutions that could theoretically boost speeds without sacrificing anyone’s quality of service. To date, neither side has gained much traction in the argument, mostly because it seemed moot. No ISP had seriously interfered with anyone’s packets.

Then, in 2007, Comcast was found to be blocking its users’ access to a file-sharing network known as “BitTorrent.” BitTorrent allows users to share personal files, but its major use is to trade copyrighted music and video. In 2008, the Federal Communications Commission slapped Comcast’s wrist, while indignant users lined up to sue the company.

The aggrieved users noted that Comcast was hardly neutral in its decision-making, as it had recently purchased NBC Universal, which holds many of the very copyrights Comcast was supposedly defending only as a good corporate citizen. That purchase immediately removed Comcast from being an impartial conduit and gave it a vested interest in packet discrimination. They claimed Comcast wasn’t being a good citizen anymore. It was being a monopolist.

The result wasn’t what the ’Net neutralists wanted. Comcast appealed the FCC’s citation and won. The appeals court noted that, despite repeated submission of bills in Congress, the government had yet to grant the FCC the power to regulate the Internet. And while Comcast ended the lawsuits by setting aside millions for a class-action settlement, the company inserted a clause into the agreement a plaintiff had to sign. That clause required the plaintiff to swear an affidavit that he had not been downloading illegal materials. For a settlement of $16, it hardly seemed worth it to many.

It’s certain that Comcast will be able to dictate much of its Internet traffic in the future, because there is no neutrality requirement. And it’s also certain Comcast will continue to be one of the few options in broadband that many Americans have. But will Comcast take another, even less savory, step and create a tiered system of usage across its broadband network, effectively renting it to the highest bidders? That could hit a good many businessfolk in the wallet.

It’s possible, but if it did, Comcast would be inviting the masses to retaliate through Congress. Comcast slid out of its noose last time by only the slimmest of technicalities, that the FCC had overstepped its authority. One piece of legislation is all it would take to change that.

Right now, even if Comcast is censoring packets, it’s doing so ostensibly only to prevent piracy. It would be awkward for its customers to ask Congress to make Comcast let them download “Batman Returns” at will. But if Comcast were to begin constructing an expensive tiered system for packet access, cash-strapped constituents would have a stronger case. I would think Comcast might count itself lucky to be where it is, with no more regulatory stripes on its back.

The issue of Comcast’s conflict of interest is another matter entirely, and will likely also be eventually hashed out in Washington. As with so much in our brave new world, nobody yet knows where the limits will be for ISPs. For the time being, I will stick with my high-speed phone line. At least the phone company hasn’t bought a TV network yet.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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