November 13, 2007
By Connie Book, Associate Professor and Associate Dean of Communications, Elon University
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – When you type in an internet address and your Web browser begins to look for it and then leads you to a screen to let you know that it couldn’t locate the domain name, that default screen can become powerful. Many of the search engines default to a screen that asks if you were looking for another domain name closely related to the same spelling, other search engines will bring you to a service that helps you buy a domain name.
That default screen and the internet’s ability to route you to preferentially treated data, was the primary topic in a crowded room in Brazil today at the United Nation’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF). This is the second annual meeting of the IGF, the second in a series of five, which is hoped to lead to actionable global policy on key internet issues. Consensus determined that globally five internet issues are on everyone’s agendas: access to the internet, diversity of the content we see online, closing the digital divide, security of internet content and openness of the internet.
Network neutrality, as we have defined it in the United States, deals with the openness of the internet.
Global scholars and strategists on the topic met on a panel today, then opened the discussion to include everyone in the room. The audience included university law professors, activists government representatives, writers, broadband providers, software developers and civil society activists rounded out the room. The challenging question-and-answer period went on for almost an hour.
Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor, was critical of two practices engaged in by broadband providers around the world. The first is called traffic shaping. Traffic shaping is the practice of portioning off available bandwidth for certain services. For example, a cable company in the United States currently provides three unique services: television, broadband and telephony. Each service typically receives a portion of the coaxial cable dedicated to a household. In this respect, the network is no longer neutral, but it is being apportioned based on service provided. Geist argued this practice led Rogers, the largest cable provider in Canada, to stop its subscribers from accessing content on the film and video website www.bittorrent.com. The bandwidth was too precious and being preserved for other Rogers applications.
On rebuttal, a man from the audience questioned Geist and said, “I don’t mind this practice at all. I would rather know I can make my phone call whenever I pick up the phone. Doesn’t the cable operator have a responsibility to make sure whatever service it sells will work all the time? How could they sell it to me otherwise?”
Geist also cautioned the audience about other non-neutral content policies being discussed at IGF.
“While no one here would support pornography trafficking on the internet, just be aware if we choose to regulate the porndemic with a dot xxx extension, then we have approved a non-neutral network policy,” Geist said. “Any policy that regulates domain names is in itself a non-neutral practice. Even spam filters are arguably, non-neutral.”
Most of the day’s questions were for Google’s attorney, Johanna Shelton. She has worked previously on Capitol Hill and is a policy strategist for Google. In her presentation titled, Autonomy and Search Engines: Should the Search Layer be Neutral?, Shelton described the feared non-neutral internet service provider as one without incentive to grow and develop.
“As the network becomes more congested, the more power the ISP has to charge more for its bandwidth. There is no incentive to grow in that scenario,” Shelton said.
During the question-and-answer session, the Google position was questioned by several audience members. One said, “Many would argue that Google has the same incentive that a broadband provider does to limit the players in the search engine market, to provide preferential treatment to certain content and to reap as much profit as possible from that endeavor.”
In response, Google’s Shelton argued that unlike the broadband providers, Google lets popularity rule the rankings and that, while people can artificially find ways to improve their rank, no money is exchanged for the ranking Google provides. Shelton says users are in control of Google’s search-engine response. She also pointed out that it is difficult to change your ISP provider and that many ISPs have a penalty of $200 if you change your service provider. While that is true of the telephone companies that provide broadband connections, it is not true of several cable providers that allow customers to opt in or out of the service without penalty. Shelton closed by saying, “More broadband provider competition is needed to ensure net neutrality.”
Google didn’t get a break from the audience; the next person to stand-up was an employee of Verizon, one of the United States’ leading broadband providers. He asked if perhaps the best way to achieve a neutral network is to not treat ISPs as “dumb pipes,” but to allow them to provide content and vertically integrate, creating a more competitive marketplace.
Shelton countered by saying, “The question is does Verizon compete fairly when it does that?” Currently, Google is not a broadband provider, so many would agree that it doesn’t have a level playing field with the ISP giant Verizon. However, Google is creating buzz about the 700 MgHz spectrum auction in the United States and its potential bid for portions of that. If successful, Google could possibly have ownership of over-the-air spectrum for the delivery of high-speed content to households across the United States. Many would argue that then the playing field would be more level and that marketplace forces might have a chance to create the neutral network desired by millions of internet users.
The complexity of network neutrality is one of the issues being discussed at IGF. The stakes are high and the conversation for the internet literate. Everyone can appreciate the role of policy in keeping the internet accessible and open to content providers and the users who seek that content.