Didi’s Blog

December 23rd, 2007

Businesses

Posted by dxie in Control of the Internet

The Internet began as a group of connected networks instigated by universities for academic purposes. During the late 1980s, the Internet was opened for commercial use. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were born. Along with the Internet came email, search engines, the world wide web, and dot-com companies.

As mentioned in the overview, online businesses have a lot of incentive to seek control of the Internet. Because there are simply so many places to surf online, companies need to compete for their businesses to be exposed to a large number of people.

Internet Service Providers are in a position to exploit this. Because they have the power to filter what their users can view, they could theoretically be bribed to allow or block certain websites, or they could cause certain websites to load more quickly or slowly than others. Recently, the news has cited several incidents where ISPs have apparently used this very ability. AOL, for example, seems to have blocked for a period of time any emails mentioning DearAOL.com, a website against DearAOL. A similar incident occurred with Comcast reducing its users’ connection speed when downloading with BitTorrent.

What are the negative impacts of ISPs exercising this power? Well, if ISPs were allowed to freely filter whatever they would like, they could block certain websites from being able to be accessed by users. They could tailor the Internet to only show websites they find favorable. The Internet would no longer be a free forum where anyone could have their say. We would lose part of the reason the Internet is so dear to us in the first place. Taken more seriously, when a user signed up for Internet service from an ISP, a user would effectively be signing up for a specific ISPs interpretation of the Internet.

In addition, this would concentrate too much power in the hands of ISPs. Businesses interested in having more popular websites would be inclined to pay ISPs for faster connection speeds to their websites. ISPs would effectively have almost complete control of the Internet by earning revenue by being selective of Internet content. They would have less of an incentive to please users as long as businesses could provide them enough revenue.

More practically, even if filtering is applied positively, it is fairly difficult to effectively filter all the information on such an expansive network. ISPs could not possibly be able to block the websites they want completely without affecting other websites as well.

This is not to say filtering by ISPs is entirely a bad thing. For example, ISPs could help block websites that don’t serve a positive purpose for users. If aided with the right technology, blocking pornography from children wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The problem lies in that blocking pornography and only pornography to only kids is very difficult to do without disrupting connections to non-pornographic websites.

In addition, I don’t believe the problem is a serious as it first appears. There are many checks to the power ISPs hold over the Internet. For example, if ISPs abuse their power too willfully and egregiously, other businesses will begin protesting. The same can be said about the general community, the people who are using the services the ISPs and businesses are providing. Since there are competing ISP companies, ISPs will refrain from abusing power in order not to lose business. Finally, if the situation gets too serious, there is always government intervention.

However, if you look at the situation from a different perspective, isn’t the Internet simply just another news source, much like television or newspaper? Thus, how is an ISP filtering Internet traffic different from newspapers choosing specific content to print? Wouldn’t it make sense for ISPs to filter content much as newspapers filter their contents?

One argument may be that the Internet is different from anything ever seen before, that it is more expansive and powerful than any TV channel or newspaper could ever be. I feel it is difficult to make such a judgment call at this point of time because the Internet is still relatively new. Another argument may be that with newspapers, it is possible to circumvent the filtering or large newspapers by publishing news in tabloids or smaller newspapers. The same may be possible when it comes to ISPs because as mentioned earlier, it is difficult to filter very completely. However, it may also be that ISPs still hold the threat of filtering more completely than newspapers could considering everything is electronic.

On another note, telephone companies, notably AT&T, are limiting the websites users can access on their cell phones. They achieve this because they provide the device users surf the Internet with. I wanted to mention this briefly because I feel like this is an example of the many ways businesses can take control of people’s Internet access that perhaps goes overlooked. Often the way we access the Internet allows for third parties to gain some influence.

One Response to ' Businesses '

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  1. Barry Watson said,

    on January 16th, 2008 at 7:45 am

    Hi there…Man i love reading your blog, interesting posts ! it was a great Wednesday

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