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Latest update : 2011-03-03

The debate over 'Net Neutrality'

The internet has long been a bastion of open communication where information flows freely. That era may soon come to an end as more governments consider placing new restrictions on the exchange of data. This week on Tech 24: the debate over "Net Neutrality".

For billions of people around the world, the internet is now an indispensible tool that plays a vital role in their daily lives. The ability to easily and quickly access information from almost anywhere and communicate by text, audio or video messages with anyone connected to the network is largely taken for granted. Just how all those bits of data are delivered is now the subject of a fierce debate in capitals across Europe and the United States.

Since the internet was born in the mid-1990s, there’s been an egalitarian ethos -- all data, whether it comes from a lone blogger in Tajikistan or from a multinational corporation in New York, is treated equally. The telecommunications companies that deliver information to computers, phones and other internet-connected devices have not discriminated or prioritized one type of contents over another. In essence, internet service providers, known as ISPs, have stuck to the policy of "network neutrality".

 

Times have changed

Until recently, ISPs found that notion to be relatively easy to accommodate. Sending text emails and simple web pages did not place much strain on their networks, and their operating costs remained in check. Today, telecom operators like Comcast in the United States, France Telecom and Spain's Telefonica are among a growing number of ISPs who assert that, with the arrival of streaming video, internet phone calls and other data-heavy online services, their costs are skyrocketing.

Now, these big companies want to change the rules. Instead of treating all internet traffic equally, they're asking their governments to give them permission to prioritize certain kinds of internet traffic over others. Companies like Google (and its subsidiary You Tube), Facebook and others major sites would have to pay to have their content delivered without interruption. Those that cannot or do not want to pay for priority delivery, would be relegated to a slower, second tier.

This move has sparked a virulent debate. Telecom operators assert the current system is not economically viable as interests groups ranging from non-profits to small businesses fear their information will be relegated to second-class status if they are unable to pay.

 

 

By Eric Olander

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