Why We Need to Keep the Internet Dumb

Doc Searls reminds us that in the digital world we do not own what we think we might own and points to common objects like books and music to demonstrate his point.

That CD on your shelf? It’s a physical object. You own it in the traditional sense. Can do pretty much what you want with it be it ripping it or giving it or selling it to another person.

Downloaded digital objects? Not so much. Instead of ownership we’re given licensed rights to use it, and that license can change at any time. So terms of use such as this one from Amazon tells us: “Digital Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.” Or as this one from Apple that Searls points out: “Apple reserves the right to modify the Usage Rules at any time.”

This has all been well discussed before. Where it gets interesting is how mobile and internet bandwidth providers are trying to get into the licensing — or endless subscription — game.

Via Searls:

Same with TV. Nothing you watch on your cable or satellite systems is yours. In most cases the gear isn’t yours either. It’s a subscription service you rent and pay for monthly. Companies in the cable and telephone business would very much like the Internet to work the same way. Everything becomes billable, regularly, continuously. All digital pipes turn into metered spigots for “content” and services on the telephony model, where you pay for easily billable data forms such as minutes and texts. (If AT&T or Verizon ran email you’d pay by the message, or agree to a “deal” for X number of emails per month.)…

Searls then points to this remarkable article in the Wall Street Journal that explores how telecoms are increasingly trying to move away from being the “dumb pipes" through which Internet traffic moves by privileging certain content and services for their subscribers.

One of Europe’s biggest wireless companies recently started offering a new plan in France: For less than $14 a month, customers could get unlimited Web browsing on their phones.

The catch—the Internet was limited to Twitter and Facebook. Every 20 minutes spent on any other website cost nearly 70 cents.

France Telecom SA’s Orange Group is one of several wireless carriers around the world experimenting with slicing up the Web into limited offerings and exclusive deals they hope will bring marketing advantages or higher profits…

…At the mobile-phone trade show [in Barcelona] this week, Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies Co. offered a glimpse of such a technology. One tap of a tablet screen running Huawei’s software opened up more Internet bandwidth for a user paying more. Another function would let cellphone carriers limit which websites certain users can access, or charge them differently for different Web domains, a spokesman said.

This slicing and dicing of access, of providing privileged access to content or services of one type over that of another, is exactly the behavior that open Internet and network neutrality proponents have constantly warned against.

The Googles, Twitters, Facebooks, Amazons and Tumblrs of the world were able to launch, thrive and survive because there were no barriers to them getting online, or for consumers to access their goods and services. An open Web provides an open market place where the quality of what they do determines the success of what they do, not privileged treatment by network providers.

The dumb pipes that telecoms are trying to overturn are quite smart in this regard. You can launch whatever it is you’d like to launch in the digital space and its success (or failure) will be determined by its merits.

But siloing access — and siloing content — to run in particular ways on particular networks defeats that meritocracy. Listen to what this startup exec tells the Wall Street Journal:

"There isn’t a level playing field, quite frankly," said Dilawar Syed, chief executive of Yonja Media Group, which runs a social network in Turkey, where Turkcell allows unlimited Facebook access for about $2 a month.

Mr. Syed said his company, whose site has more than six million members, is responding by designing Yonja’s mobile interface to consume less data and in turn lower the cost for users.

Translated: Yonja is forced to build a substandard mobile product because otherwise its six million members will be charged an arm and a leg by the likes of Turkcell to use it.

Similar telecom strategies are coming to the States. The FCC’s network neutrality rules, for example, are more stringent for landline networks than mobile ones. The result, as the WSJ tells us, is that AT&T and Verizon are looking at models like those we’re seeing abroad to squeeze more revenue out of their networks. The common theme is to shift costs back to content and services companies:

AT&T turned heads at a mobile-industry conference in Barcelona this week, after one of the second-largest U.S. carrier’s executives described in an interview a plan to shift some of the cost of data traffic onto the companies that generate it.

Network and technology head John Donovan said in an interview that he was working on a product that would allow Web developers and content providers to pick up the tab for the mobile data their products consume, meaning that certain movies and apps wouldn’t count against AT&T users’ data plans.

Put another way, AT&T is thinking about requiring companies to pay them in order for customers to have a good experience with their products and services.

There are different words for this. Shakedown is one. Protection racket are some others. I prefer extortion.

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