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April 17, 2003

a new threat to open access

Here's a troubling technological development, pointed out by Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. A company called Ellacoya provides "network traffic control" software and hardware that allows Internet Service Providers (ISP) to track their own customers closely and to "enforce a very large number of policies" regarding Internet use. The technology can, for example, limit traffic from particular sites or categories of sites to a certain speed, or block connections altogether to particular sites, or block connections at certain times of the day for certain customers. The great danger is that ISPs can now speed up connections to Websites that have paid them for special treatment, while subtly slowing down other sites. ISPs will certainly have the incentive to discriminate in this way if they are owned by a major content provider, such as Microsoft or AOL Time Warner.

This means that if your favorite low-budget nonprofit seems to have a slow Website, your ISP may actually be responsible. Also, ISPs may slow down users who want to create and post material, rather than merely consume it. (Ellacoya says: "Operators can easily discover their top talkers and then set up restricted bandwidth pools for specific applications and/or user groups during peak hours.") This kind of discrimination will be hard to detect, so customers will not switch their ISPs to avoid it. Yet it strikes at one of the fundamental principles of the Internet. You should be able to share any kind of (legal) material with anyone without an intermediary throwing obstacles in your path. Whereas overt obstacles are easily detected and can often by bypassed, subtle discrimination poses a serious danger.

April 17, 2003 11:46 AM | category: Internet and public issues | Comments


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