Father of the Web speaks on neutrality

My friend and fellow tech writer Tyler Hamilton from the Toronto Star had a great piece in the paper the other day based on an interview with the Father of the Web himself, Sir Tim Berners-Lee (hat tip to Rob Hyndman for pointing me to it). Sir Tim said that he was “very concerned” that the big telecom companies were trying to impose tiers of service and other roadblocks that would change the neutrality of the Web. He said:

“It stops being the Net if a supplier of downloaded video pays to connect to a particular set of consumers who are connected to a particular cable company. It would no longer be an open information space.”

Among other things, Sir Tim said he fears a time when Internet access and all that it represents is filtered through the networks of these large telecom players, who then determine what sites and services work best and are therefore the most popular, and even co-operate with operating system makers to determine how the network functions. This would completely change the open nature of the Web, he said.

“The place you buy your shoes has been decided by the search engine, and the search engine was been decided by the browser, which has been decided by the operating system, which has been decided by the computer,” he said. “Then your choice of shoes is dictated by your choice of computer.”

Attempts to incorporate some kind of protection for net neutrality into U.S. legislation have so far had mixed results, and some of the major Internet companies are not impressed. The other Father of the Internet, Vint Cerf, remains concerned about the potential for harm.

Cue the violins for the telecom gang

Boy, it seems like only yesterday, doesn’t it? The day that U.S. regulators busted up AT&T, I mean, and created the seven regional Bell operating companies or RBOCs, also known as the “Baby Bells” — including Southwestern Bell, Nynex, USWest and BellSouth. And how many big telephone companies are there now? Well, there are four: AT&T, BellSouth, Qwest and Verizon. And it looks like soon there will be three, if AT&T gets approval for its $67-billion (U.S.) takeover of BellSouth. The company that is now calling itself AT&T is actually Southwestern Bell or SBC, which bought AT&T last year for $16-billion and assumed the name.

Over the past decade or so, AT&T had acquired Pacific Telesis and Ameritech (two other Baby Bells), while Verizon bought Nynex and Bell Atlantic, and USWest merged with Qwest. Of course, there was also that whole sordid mess involving Bernie Ebbers and WorldCom (the shell of which became MCI), but let’s not get into that. If it feels a little like AT&T has been putting itself back together again, that’s not surprising, since in many ways it is — or at least creating a duopoly where there was once a septopoly. As Mike Masnick at Techdirt put it recently, Ma Bell is “getting the band back together” for a kind of reunion tour.

And how is the company going to make this mega-deal fly, especially when it will create the single largest telephone company since AT&T was broken up? Get ready to hear a lot about how the telecom market is hyper-competitive and local phone service just doesn’t make money any more, how voice-over-Internet is killing the industry and carriers need more volume to be able to compete, and how the idea of “network neutrality” just doesn’t pay the bills any more, and therefore AT&T needs to be able to charge Google and Yahoo and others extra to get their digital info to users on time.

That’s a tune Ed Whitacre of the new AT&T has been singing for some time now, and this is only going to make him boost the volume, as my friend Mark Evans points out. But will regulators buy it, or will it sound a little off-key when it comes from one of the world’s largest phone companies? Vinnie Marchandani at DealArchitect has a good take on it, and Blake Ross has a satirical take on the press release that is worthy of The Onion.

The telecom payola gang strikes again

They’re at it again. As Om Malik reports, a story in the Wall Street Journal (which is now behind the pay wall), says the big U.S. telecom players are continuing their campaign for a multi-tiered Internet in which Google and Yahoo and Microsoft pay for their bits to get better treatment than someone else’s bits. Best quote: “During the hurricanes, Google didn’t pay to have the DSL restored,” said BellSouth spokesman Jeff Battcher. “We’re paying all that money.”

What are the big telecom companies smoking? They charge people $40 a month or so for high-speed Internet service, then put caps and download limits on them, or use “traffic shaping” to give some services priority over others — or even prevent some online applications from working at all — and then argue that Google and other companies should pay extra. Russ Shaw calls it a “shakedown.”

As John Battelle points out, this is all something that Internet users are already paying for, something Vonage CEO Jeffrey Citron also mentions in the WSJ article. Former Wall Street brokerage analyst Henry Blodgett says he wonders what all the fuss is about, but to me it is clear: the telecos want protection money from the big Net companies. I think Jeff Jarvis is right to call them “robber barons,” and of course the inimitable Doc Searls has written a treatise on the subject as well. Fred calls it a simple matter of jealousy.

Update:

Larry Page of Google and the chairman of the FCC both comment on the disturbing trend towards a tiered Internet in this Register story. And I also came across an excellent (and long) discussion of the issue by Mitch Shapiro over at IP Democracy.