The Web — not democratic, but open

Scott Karp over at Publishing 2.0 has a post in which he questions the somewhat gushing tone of an op-ed piece in the New York Times over the weekend about net neutrality. Scott says that his problem with the piece is that the great promise of a democratic Web is an illusion.

The problem with the democratic web ideal is that no one really owns their own press — not me, not the rest of the blogosphere, not Yahoo, not Google. Why? Because none of us owns our own internet access.

Since the cable companies and telecom companies own the Internet, he continues, then it can’t really be truly democratic — in the sense of being an instrument of the people — unless Congress explicitly says that Internet access is a public utility. Part of what Scott seems upset about is that fuzzy terms like “net neutrality” don’t really help the discussion, and I can sympathize with him there. It doesn’t help that the telecom industry has cleverly called its counter-campaign “Hands Off The Internet,” so both sides are effectively claiming that they want things left as they are and the other side wants to change them.

As I put it to Scott in a comment, however, I think the telcos are guilty of moving the goalposts, as I have mentioned before. According to a recent book called Broadband Scandal, the telcos got all kinds of favourable deals from the U.S. government a decade or so ago, in part by promising that everyone would soon have a super-fast connection capable of handling phone calls, TV-style programming and so on. Now it seems as though they are asking for the ability to charge more for delivering what should already be here.

In addition, as Craig Newmark of Craigslist mentioned in his recent debate with a telecom lobbyist in the Wall Street Journal, network experts say that there is still a large quantity of “dark” fiber out there (some of which Google is rumoured to have been buying), which would tend to refute the argument that the Internet is somehow getting “full.”

In any case, I would disagree with Scott’s premise: it’s not so much about democracy as it is about open access — and the telecoms are quite used to dealing with such things, since the telephone network was effectively treated as a public good through “common carrier” legislation. All the net neutrality folks are talking about is doing the same thing for the Internet. If that requires treating the Internet like a utility, then so be it.

Get ready – it’s “VOIP tax” time

Continuing the theme of “network neutrality,” voice-over-Internet provider Vonage has raised the spectre of a “tiered” approach to the Internet in Canada in a filing with the Canadian broadcast regulator – the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission or CRTC, the agency whose name is almost as long as some of its meetings. According to a press release from Vonage, it is protesting the $10 a month “VOIP tax” that Shaw Communications of Calgary charges customers to “improve” their service (the filing was actually made in December, but not publicized until now). It’s an issue that has been around for awhile now.

Shaw, one of the country’s largest cable concerns – which is controlled by the Shaw family – doesn’t charge extra if you want to use Shaw’s own VOIP service. But if you use Vonage or Babytel or one of the other services out there, you will be offered the $10 extra charge to “improve” the quality of your phone calls. You don’t have to pay it, of course. You’re free to use VOIP without paying extra, but the clear implication is that the service might be of poor quality, and that Shaw isn’t likely to be interested in your complaints unless you paid your $10 fee.

Maybe it’s just me, but this seems a little like the bad old days in Chicago or some other corruption-riddled city, where you were free to run your business without paying “protection” money to certain parties, but if you didn’t then you were likely to find your store burning to the ground some evening with the police and fire department standing around watching. It’s no big stretch from what Shaw is doing – or other ISPs — to a multi-tiered Internet that charges extra for things like peer-to-peer music downloading, but doesn’t charge extra if you use the music service marketed by your Internet provider.

Is that what the Internet is supposed to be like? Not according to Vinton Cerf, who helped invent the darn thing in the first place. Whether the CRTC will take any action remains to be seen. For more thoughts on the topic, both of Shaw’s move and network neutrality in general, see Mitch Shapiro’s post at the always excellent IPDemocracy.com

Telecoms and the toll-road gambit

I wasn’t sure whether to write anything about the “network neutrality” issue, in part because my friend Rob Hyndman has done such a good job of covering the subject – particularly an overview of the current state of affairs in his latest post – but as usual I couldn’t resist 🙂 Verizon has reportedly filed documents with the Federal Communications Commission that say it plans to use as much as 80 per cent of its network for its own purposes. Everything else would get shoe-horned into the remainder (although Cynthia at IPDemocracy says it might not be as bad as it sounds, and it looks like Om Malik agrees).

This, of course, is just the latest step in a campaign by the major telcos to strong-arm convince Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo to pay extra for delivery of their broadband content to consumers, a campaign that got its start with comments from Ed “pay up for those pipes” Whitacre of AT&T (formerly SBC) and Bill Smith of BellSouth. Why should they have to carry all that content on their networks, the telcos complain – why should Google make money from broadband and not share some of it with the carriers whose pipes they use?

As Mike at Techdirt notes, part of the problem is that the phone companies haven’t spent the money necessary to do all the things they want to do on their networks. The telcos made all kinds of promises about upgrades they planned to make – in return for which they got various concessions from the U.S. government – and then they never followed through, as telecom analyst Bruce Kushnick writes in a new book called The $200-Billion Broadband Scandal.

The big question is: Will the U.S. government allow the telcos to get away with this move, or will they step in to enforce some form of network neutrality? There used to be a concept called the “common carrier” principle, in which telcos were required to carry any and all voice traffic — that idea seems to have gone out the window.

An expose on telecom bait-and-switch

I don’t know telecom analyst Bruce Kushnick, but I’m definitely interested in the subject of a new book he has written (and is selling himself using the Internet). In a nutshell, the topic of his book is a scam that the major U.S. telecoms pulled on the American government — and the American people — by effectively promising high-speed, fibre-optic Internet in return for concessions on licensing requirements and other regulations set by U.S. telecom regulators. Then they reneged on their end of the bargain.

Steve Stroh, who has been covering the telecom and networking industry as an independent consultant for some time, has written about Kushnick’s book on his blog, and so has veteran telecom consultant Gordon Cook, and Richard Stastny of the VOIP and Enum blog, and David Isenberg, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, on his blog.

Given that kind of support, I’m prepared to believe Kushnick’s version of events has some truth to it, since several of the people mentioned above have said that he has documentation backing up his claims. Beyond that, it certainly sounds like something the telecom companies would do — they may even have believed it when they said it. But the U.S. certainly doesn’t have anything like the 45-megabit-per-second connections that the telcos promised.

And it definitely sheds a different kind of light on their repeated claims that Internet content companies should be paying more for access to their pipes (something my friend Rob Hyndman has written about many times). It sounds to me like U.S. consumers have already paid for it several times over.