Friday, March 03, 2006

Toward a Two-Tiered Internet

The Internet is one of history's most democratic forms of communication. No form of communication has brought together more people, each with the ability to share and learn. In 1999, John Chambers, President and CEO of networking giant Cisco, called the Internet the great "equalizer between people, companies, and countries."
But recent efforts by AOL and Yahoo to create a tiered Internet would tilt the system's level playing field in favor of large wealthy companies. The two e-mail providers have partnered with Goodmail Systems to "charge companies about 1/4 cent to send a message that will bypass spam filters."
E-mails from paying companies will go straight to a user's inbox, but e-mails from non-paying companies will go through the "gauntlet of spam filters that could divert them to a junk-mail folder or strip them of images and Web links," even if they're not spam.

It is being reported in various articles that AOL and Yahoo argue that this measure--set to go into effect for AOL in 30 days--will help reduce spam for users. But I don't buy it. The realityof the situation is that this will create a virtual express toll lane, which will increase profits for the providers, while stifling innovation and leaving behind small businesses and nonprofits that are unable to afford the extra cost. E-mail has been a God send for non-profits, a change to this resource would be very bad.

In an interview on NPR Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig said, "This would literally be the end of the Internet," who "fears that the next Google won't ever get the chance to establish itself -- because it would be stuck in the slow lane."

I emplore people to take action now and let AOL know that you want the Internet to stay free and open.

I have heard AOL and Yahoo representatives argue on various NPR shows that this new "postage" measure will restore order to a spam-plagued system. Senders paying the certified fee "must promise to contact only people who have agreed to receive their messages, or risk being blocked entirely."

But I also heard Timothy Karr of Free Press points out, Goodmail's scheme will not eliminate spam, but actually increase it: "AOL subscribers will receive certified email in addition to the regular traffic that clutters most inboxes." Additionally, AOL admits that spam isn't as troublesome as it once was. AOL users' spam complaints are down 75 percent from 2003, yet its sophisticated spam filters capture about 20 percent of legitimate mail. Gizmodo reports that "new systems for spam-resistant email have been in the cards for years," but no one can come to any agreement. In the meantime, e-mail providers shouldn't close the free Internet as a quick solution, because as prominent anti-spammer Richard Cox of Spamhaus notes, "[A]n e-mail charge will destroy the spirit of the Internet." A coalition of 50 groups with about 15 million members has formed against the Goodmail scheme, calling it the "first step down a slippery slope that will harm the Internet itself."

The group--including strange bedfellows such as the Gun Owners of America,, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for American Progress--represents four million of AOL's 19.5 million customers. The Gun Owners have threatened that its members will leave AOL if the new fee materializes. A recent poll conducted by the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, and Free Press found that "70 percent [of responders] were concerned about providers blocking or impairing their access to Internet services or sites" and 54 percent wanted Congress to write legislation preserving net neutrality. Large technology companies, such as Google, are also fighting against a tiered Internet. "New innovation in the marketplace increases our business," says Google's Vint Cerf, one of the Internet's creators. If start-ups can't go fast, he says, the Internet will be a "zero-sum game."

Broadband providers, such as AT&T, BellSouth, and Verizon, are also looking for ways to make money by destroying net neutrality. Internet sites willing to pay high fees would be given preferential treatment on web, resulting in faster load times for users. "High-bandwidth sites that refused to pay, however, could see their traffic slowed to a crawl, or even blocked in some cases." Telecom firms argue that they have the right to be compensated for building networks. John Thorne, Verizon's senior vice president and deputy general counsel, told a conference that Google shouldn't be enjoying "a free lunch." But Ben Scott at Free Press argues that if the broadband providers get their way, "The next great idea, the next Google or eBay or Napster or whatever, won't have the capital to get themselves in the fast lanes right away. ... The reason the big e-companies were so successful were that they started on the same level playing field as everyone else."

The Senate is taking up the issue of net neutrality. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) will be introducing legislation, the Internet Non-Discrimination Act of 2006, calling for a "toll-free" Internet and prohibiting "Internet network operators from charging companies for faster delivery of their content to consumers or favoring some content providers over others." Wyden said that his legislation "will make sure all information (transmitted over broadband networks) is made available on the same terms so that no bit is better than another one."

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