This Tuesday, the United States Senate is expected
to vote on the principle of network neutrality
, or what some call the
democracy
of the Internet.

Meanwhile the local head of Internet research company
Hitwise, Sandra Hanchard, has written a piece including figures on how Australians actually use the internet. Her research makes it clear that the US
decision will have a profound impact on Australians. She also sheds light on why it is content
providers on the internet who are advocating laws guaranteeing net neutrality,
and telcos who oppose them.

Network neutrality can mean different things to different people, but in the current debate it
stands for the principle that telcos and ISPs should be prevented from creating
a tiered internet, in which those who pay are given more efficient ways of
reaching audiences. In other words,
without network neutrality the internet becomes a toll road with a priority
privileged lane for those who pay a higher fee.

Opponents of network neutrality argue that
the ability to impose variable charges for different levels of service is
necessary if telcos are to have the incentive to invest in the infrastructure
necessary for the Internet to develop. They
compare it to the Postal Service, where you pay for express service.

On the other side of the argument is a vast
coalition that crosses political boundaries, but has in common a passionate
interest in content, rather than the pipes that deliver content.

They would prefer to see the internet as
being like a utility such as electricity.
You pay for what you use, whether you plug in a toaster, or a
television. It is none of the
electricity company’s business how you use their product.

As Hanchard explains, big companies like
Google will be very vulnerable if network neutrality becomes a thing of the past. The giant content providers of the Internet
rely on all the little players for their referral traffic, and their advertising
revenue. If big players pay more, the
web of connections that makes the Internet what it is will fundamentally alter.

If a telco is able to privilege its own
content, or the content of its commercial partners, over the independent
players then it is likely to distort the market, quite possibly stifling the
development of new applications and content.

And Hanchard argues: “The large
spread of visits across all websites and low concentration of overall clickstream
traffic may be…considered a symptom of the rise and popularity of consumer
generated media. Businesses are still exploring the marketing applications of
this, and it could be a great shame if this was nipped in the bud by lack of
legislation to protect net neutrality.”

With the first internet
television services just around the corner, the growth of podcasting and the
wholesale shift of advertising dollars to online media, it is hard to imagine a
more important issue for those concerned with media diversity in this country.

Peter Fray

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