The Importance of Net Neutrality Hits Home
During the 2008 elections, my interest in the candidate’s positions on net neutrality became somewhat of a joke amongst my friends. To most people, the importance of net neutrality are not obvious. I’ve covered it pretty extensively here on The Melon, but now we have a real world example of a large Internet Service Provider (ISP) violating network neutrality.
Recently, a company called FairPoint agreed to take over Verizon’s residential Internet business in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Verizon wanted to sell this portion of their business because it was heavily in debt and not creating good profits for the company. Verizon sweetened the deal by offering to give FairPoint $50 million over the next few years. However, it’s still unclear exactly how FairPoint plans to pay off the debt and start making money. At least part of that plan will become clear to their customers after the service switches over.
Starting February 6th, customers of FairPoint (previously customers of Verizon who were given no choice whether or not to switch) will no longer be able to access Yahoo! Mail, Hotmail, MSN Mail, or AOL email. Well, they’ll be able to access it, but only by going through FairPoint’s portal to those sites. This portal will certainly include additional ads, but could do other things like store copies of your email or scan it to place ads related to your email. FairPoint could even intentionally slow down access to these sites to encourage their customers to switch to FairPoint’s email which is much cheaper for FairPoint to provide. That’s frustrating and annoying for their customers, but most people would probably find it fairly innocuous, although I’m sure their customers aren’t happy about it.
Still, what if FairPoint doesn’t stop there? They need to pay off that debt and make money. Next, they could prevent users from using any search engine other than their own or limit access to banking websites. Since bandwidth is what’s expensive, they might charge users an additional monthly fee to get access to YouTube or other video sites.
The reason taking a stand on net neutrality is so important is that it’s a very slippery slope to the more ridiculous ideas like making users pay extra money to visit certain websites or, even worse, charging websites extra money to make sure that customers of that ISP can see that website’s content. Both of those severely disrupt innovation and the online economy. To remain competitive and allow people to come up with new, cool uses for the Internet, it needs to remain neutral. FairPoint’s disruption of webmail is a first step down the path to an Internet that’s not free (as in beer or speech) and it’s important to put a stop to it quickly, similar to the response to Comcast’s disruption of BitTorrent. It will take Congress passing laws to ensure the Internet remains free, but it’s up to customers of the ISPs and users of the Internet to demand fair, high-quality service until that happens. Anyone now stuck with FairPoint should switch to another company on February 7th and refuse to pay any fees associated with early termination of their contract because FairPoint is going to violate that contract on February 6th. My bet is that it will take 2 weeks for a class action lawsuit to be filed.
image credit http://flickr.com/photos/markrabo/