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Test Of Net Neutrality

The Internet is open to all at affordable, simple pricing, and users can send or receive content without fear of it being relegated to second-class status. Streaming video from Comedy Central's Web site is treated the same as a transaction on eBay or photos on a blog. This even-handedness is known as network neutrality, and it has worked like a charm for years. But the telecom industry is pushing for change, with broad implications for how companies use the Internet--and what they pay.

Phone and cable companies want to give preferential treatment to high-priority Internet traffic and charge premium prices for it. But Web site operators and content providers such as and Google are pushing back, fearing that today's neutral Internet will devolve into a multimedia toll system that's more expensive for them and not affordable for others.

Cerf's up: Content discrimination is a bad idea, says the Internet pioneer.

Cerf's up: Content discrimination is a bad idea, says the Internet pioneer.

Last week, both sides took their cases to Capitol Hill. "Allowing broadband carriers to discriminate in favor of certain kinds of services, and to potentially interfere with others, would take control away from the end users of the Internet and place it in the hands of those who own the network," warned Google VP and Internet pioneer Vint Cerf at a Senate hearing on network neutrality.

Tiered-service proposals gained momentum last August when a Supreme Court decision paved the way for two FCC rulings that freed cable and phone companies from long-standing rules that prevented them from treating different kinds of Internet content in different ways. Now, bills are circulating in the House and Senate that would set the ground rules or prevent it from happening.

In a separate development involving Internet-related fees, America Online and Yahoo last week disclosed plans to charge companies up to a penny per message to usher E-mail past spam filters and into addressees' in-boxes, bearing a special seal of approval. Their stated goal is to reduce spam, while making it easier for users to tell which messages really are intended for them. Some mass mailers are leery. "If everyone started charging for this, it would be expensive," says Howard Tong, VP of marketing for computer retailer, which already pays specialist Loyalty Lab less than a tenth of a cent per message so that its mass mailings pass through spam filters. "It would be an administrative nightmare, too. Think about all the companies you would have to talk to."

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