Some thoughts on the role of ISPs and network carriers

A friend mentioned in his blog an article published on Businessweek regarding the possibility of ISPs charging their subscribers ‘tolls’ for accessing online competitors’ services.

I have been lucky enough to experience the internet from its commercial beginnings. Before it, the most widespread equivalent in Hellas and other parts of the world, were BBSs, or Bulletin Board Services. There, you subscribed to one BBS provider and had access to whatever that provider offered, which was usually nothing by comparison of what is available for free today online, but also extremely limited compared to what was available online, for the cost of a single internet subscription, some years down the road.

The power of the internet lies partly in the freedom of all involved: the developers and content designers, through the use of open standards, the users, through uncensored/unrestricted, fast and cheap access. The former has started becoming reality with Internet Explorer 6 finally starting to support standards (at least partially) and Firefox becoming a decent enough browser, with enough promotion to force developers to take it into account. The latter, has always been cause of concern in many places in the world (even in the most developed parts) as the ‘market’ forces have struggled to maximise their profits without breaking the law (just bending it as much as it goes, thank you very much). A very suitable example of such a case is Hellas.

In any case, since my first ‘surf ride’ online in 1994, I always saw the network carriers as just that: carriers of information to which I pay a subscription so that they can keep providing and improving this service to me and others – a vast difference to the previously convoluted role of BBS providers. I was very vocal against companies like AOL or Compuserve that failed to go beyond the BBS-era mentality of offering exclusive content to their subscribers and not embracing the, then, up and coming web paradigms. Since then AOL has more or less dropped their AOL ‘keywords’, and Compuserve exists as an AOL-owned ISP.

The legal and financial muscle of organisations such as RIAA and MPAA putting responsibility on the network carriers as a last resort to battle piracy was a huge blow to this perception. Suddently, ISPs were becoming, or forced to become more than that: they were forced to become watchers, to monitor or even censor content or traffic depending on the will of large corporations, just because the latter lack the capability to stop an illegal operation with other means.

In the United States and Europe, there is growing concern about the dangers that freedom on the net brings with it; for children, for large corporations, even national interests. It is true, that there should be a high-level discussion within the international community about grave, social issues and how they take form online, like child pornography, terrorism, illegal content trafficking.

Until today, most ISPs in Europe have structured their access plans based on speed and, in some cases, duration or time of day. Access to the internet, with the exception of newsgroups through ISP-owned news servers (no one is forced to use them anyway) was uncensored or one might say uncontrolled. In addition ISPs that have attempted to block ports on subscriber computers so that specific services are unavailable to them, have not had much commercial success. Finally, from a technical standpoint, the existence of onion routing makes it difficult to restrict access to specific content.

The legal and ethical ramifications of any sort of restriction of access to the internet are too big to contemplate and can possibly destroy the very essence of the net as we experience it today: a medium of free speech, unregulated, open and free for all. The possibility of ‘tolls’ to access parts of the net, is as ridiculous a concept as, and can only serve as a reminder to, the Chinese Government’s decision to block the BBC because of its ‘hostile’ take on Tibet, sweatshops, all_things_bad. Clearly, by comparison, AOL’s strategy of closing down their content to their subscribers was quite open minded after all.

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