I have a car, and I pay car tax that, in theory at least, pays for the roads that I drive on. I can don my driver’s gloves, expensive sun-glasses and cool-looking cap and motor anywhere on the road network in the UK—and Europe for that matter—for no extra charge, or most of it anyway. There are some toll roads where I need to pay extra. I don't have to use these as they are alternative routes, but it usually saves a large amount of time and hassle when I do.
It is entirely up to me if I use these toll roads or not, or any others for that matter. They are all non-discriminant—that is anyone can use them with the same priority. Although some people are more advantaged than others on the road this is due to things such as the type of car you drive, not based on who or what you are, or where you live. Although the system does not work brilliantly, it does all the same work.
I don't know if it is a coincidence or not, but my internet broadband fees are almost identical to my car road tax. From my computer I can surf anywhere on the network. My packets flow with others along the cables in a non-discriminant manner, and although others can surf faster and better than I this is normally because they have selected the higher speed broadband connection, or have engineered a T3 into their living room or something.
Where is this going? The BBC has reported today on a US decision not to embed “Net Neutrality" into the COPE Act. A “non-neutral" net can potentially give your ISP control of where you can surf or what you can see. It also gives them the ability to charge for access to specific content, or force web service providers to pay them in order for their customers to access them. This can change the face of the web significantly, and for the worse.
Before the web, or the internet, as we know it came into existance there was a service here in the UK called Prestel. It was launched by British Telecom in 1979, and my father subscribed. It was in effect a “pay-as-you-browse" service, where you were charged by the “page" you viewed. This did mean that you had access to useful information as the content providers could receive money if the information provided was in demand. In fact, it took a long time for the World Wide Web to produce information to as high a quality as Prestel originally did, though it does now. What was missing from Prestel, and what, in my opinion, was the reason for its relative lack of take up was the non-existence of a vibrant on-line community. The cross pollination of innovation and ideas that is the hallmark of the on-line world.
Prestel exists today only in name, it has been swallowed up entirely by the modern internet and utterly digested. Although the model at the time was forward looking, its philosophy was simply not sustainable where freedom of choice rules.
The modern danger of a non-neutral internet is a possible attempt to return to the “Prestel" model—a “pay-as-you-browse" service. This can destroy the “cross-pollination" aspect of content. For example, in this entry I have, up to this point, linked to three other web sites, which is a low number for me. I would be far less keen to do so in a non-free, or discriminant, environment.
Don’t get me wrong—toll roads can be useful—and I have no problems with the concept of paying an ISP a little extra if very large amount of bandwidth is required for a specific purpose. Toll roads can divert traffic from town roads making traffic run smoother there, and giving those who wish to travel faster through to the other side an opportunity to do so; everyone benefits. A parallel of this can apply to broadband usage. Those with big movies and other large datasets to download (or upload) can have the opportunity to use special routes (at a modest cost) that will perform that function fast, and doing so would ensure the more domestic browser and email users’ access is uncluttered by it.
However, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It would be tempting for the ISP to gain revenue by restricting access in a discriminant manner to sites that are “unsponsored". For instance, I wonder how much Microsoft is willing to pay to ensure MSN Search is used rather than Google? I am generally all in favor of free market and competition, but it is logistically difficult to ensure fair competition in cable companies. I think that not to legislate to ensure some kind of net-neutrality can place the international community back by several decades. I hope I am wrong.