Network Neutrality - The Great Firewall?
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Many critics and human rights campaigners cite China's "Great Firewall" as the worst abuse of Internet technology. China is filtering content to its citizens for purposes of historical revisionism and state propaganda. But is this all that different from what is proposed by our own ISPs?
Blocking or at the very least restricting access to certain sites on the grounds that they aren't paying for the privilege doesn't seem any different to me. In fact, it seems even worse given this comes very close to breaking anti-trust laws. ISPs offering their own services should not be able to force their customers into using them, in the same way that Microsoft shouldn't be be able to force customers into using Live Search or Windows Media Player with Windows Vista.
What we are most likely to see, though, will not be an all-out blocking of non-conformist cheapskate companies, but something similar to what has been implemented by ISPs in response to Bit-Torrent and other high bandwidth peer-to-peer applications: traffic shaping. This would simply mean that the ISPs set up monitors to restrict traffic from companies on a "black list" and prioritize companies who pay their way.
It makes me wonder though. How would a system of charging the provider work on an international level? No one company individually owns much of the Internet backbone (the infrastructure of international connections, via high bandwidth fiber optics). And can you really insist that a content provider can't use your part of the network without paying? It could work at a local level where individual ISPs define "using their pipes" as sending content to one of their customers, but once the international backbones start being used, what's going to happen?
The majority of web servers in the world are located in the USA. Are Europeans going to be left out of American content because the companies won't pay the fees to get fast speeds across the Atlantic link? Are the content providers going to be expected to pay each and every major ISP to allow their traffic to go anywhere? What about countries like India and China with rapidly increasing numbers of Internet users? Are they going to want to pay the fees? Will the Chinese government just take the opportunity to shut the world out completely?
Being from the UK, I have hope that the European Union will step in and prevent such a disaster. They have taken a hard line on Microsoft for abusing their monopoly of the operating system market to force other services onto consumers, so perhaps they will listen to reason and not the corporate lackeys when the opportunity to ensure network neutrality comes up in their oh-so-busy schedule.
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