Get Real – The Net Is Not Neutral

Comcast recently surprised users when it cut off Internet access to those it considers “bandwidth hogs.” The incident calls for an examination of the link between net neutrality and digital piracy.

Depending on what side of the net neutrality debate one is on, the Comcast cut-off could be viewed as proof that ISPs have too much power or that ISPs really do need to protect their networks from abuse. To help figure this out, consider why Comcast kicked the bandwidth hogs off the network in the first place.

Data Deluge

“Comcast has a responsibility to provide these customers with a superior experience and to address any excessive usage issues that may impact that experience,” Comcast spokesperson Shawn Feddeman told the Boston Globe. “The few customers who are notified of excessive use typically consume exponentially more bandwidth than the average user.”

What would “exponentially more bandwidth” potentially look like? Apparently some people were downloading or sending the equivalent of 13 million e-mail messages or 256,000 photos a month. That’s a lot of data, making one start to think that whoever is involved in such activity is probably either a big spammer or downloading a lot of movies and songs. While it’s true that legal downloading of music and movies is on the rise, illegal downloading by digital pirates still consumes much bandwidth.

Illegal downloading from P2P (peer-to-peer) sites is one of the serious problems broadband network managers face, according to telecom analyst Scott Cleland, Chairman of NetCompetition.org.

“People claim that if you are blocked or removed that it is not Net neutral,” he said. “But consumer bandwidth was not designed for commercial use or round-the-clock P2P scams.”

This begs the question: to what extent are supporters of net neutrality also tacitly supporting piracy?

Can’t Have It Both Ways

From a glance at some pro-net neutrality videos, such as the anti-establishment “Ask a Ninja,” the answers may be quite a lot. Perhaps that’s why the music and movie industry associations, in the past at odds with ISPs over obtaining pirate data, have remained fairly silent in the net neutrality debate. It also makes a recent announcement by the “Future of Music Coalition” look rather silly.

On March 22, Jenny Toomey, executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, said, “With Rock the Net, we intend to get thousands of the nation’s musicians, independent labels and music services to become part of the effort to keep a ‘payola’ system from being established on the Internet.”

What’s ironic is that by supporting the issue of Net neutrality, these artists may also be supporting the theft of their products online. That would indeed ensure the elimination of payola, but it would also ensure an elimination of artists’ intellectual property.

The Neutrality Myth

Net neutrality sounds nice, but belongs more properly on the ash heap of failed ideological theories. In the real world, the net is not neutral. Some Web site operators spend more than others to make their sites more appealing to consumers and, in the music industry, some songs will now be sold for a decidedly non-neutral price.

Apple just announced that it will soon sell DRM-free songs for US$1.29 which will be of higher audio quality than the other 99-cent, DRM-encoded songs sold through iTunes. Under net neutrality theory, government shouldn’t allow such differentiation. It’s a good thing Americans don’t live under such a regime.

No one expects Net neutrality legislation to pass this year, but the Democratic Congress is expected to revisit the subject. When they do, someone should remind them that neutrality would make it difficult for ISPs to manage their networks and it might be alright for bandwidth hogs to get the boot every once in a while.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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