What if you tried to connect to a Web site and discovered you couldn’t because you have the wrong Internet service provider?
This is not likely to happen today, but there are concerns that something like it might, and even that similar things are already happening.
There is no shortage
of companies involved both in providing Internet access and providing content. In Canada, BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications are both examples. As broadband Internet access gradually elbows dial-up aside, more and more people are relying on major telephone and cable-TV companies for their Internet access.
The idea of ISPs limiting what you can do with your Internet connection is nothing new – many ISPs have restrictions on the volume of downloading, on setting up servers on residential connections and the like. Some are reasonable – if traffic to my neighbour’s Web site affects my service, I’m not going to be happy. But how far should ISPs be allowed to go?
Not too far, some people say. An important principle has governed the Internet’s development from the early days – neutrality. Traditionally, the Internet has just been a network. It didn’t matter what you ran over it. That’s why when Tim Berners-Lee thought up the World Wide Web, he didn’t have to ask permission from the owners of the wires over which the Internet runs.
But that principle doesn’t always apply these days. For instance, Yale Braunstein, a professor of information management and systems at University of California at Berkeley, points to an attempt by SBC Communications, the dominant phone company in his state, to change contracts with local ISPs reselling its Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service, so that the ISPs could not run non-Internet content such as video on demand over the DSL service. Regulators quashed the attempt.
There could also be more preferential treatment going on than we realize. Braunstein points out that ISP decisions like what content to cache locally affect how fast content downloads to a customers’ computer. It is technically possible to arrange things so streaming audio or video from one source downloads faster than that from another. Nobody can give examples of this happening – but how could they tell? Customers would just think one service was faster.
Francois Menard, a telecommunications project manager at XIT Telecom in Trois-Rivieres, Que., who is interested in this issue, says Bell’s Sympatico service quietly ignores bandwidth quotas if customers spend the time on online gaming servers run by Bell.
And he says Webcams set up as part of a “”star search”” contest in Quebec are accessible only through cable firm Groupe Videotron Inc.’s cable-modem service.
When U.S. cable companies first started offering Internet service, it was common for them to limit the amount of streaming video users could view over their networks, says Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of the Media Access Project in Washington. Their interest was obvious: Streaming video is a potential competitor to television.
The cable companies have since backed off that practice, Leanza says, and the public pressure that made them do so is a key weapon in preventing this sort of restriction on Internet use. However, Leanza, Menard and others say regulation is also important. That will be more and more true if the number of independent ISPs declines – as it seems to be doing – and customers are less able to vote with their feet.