Last night as I was laying in bed reading the days news that I hadn’t gotten around to on my cell phone I ran across Andre Vrignaud’s article on Kotaku about how Comcast killed his internet service for a year because he broke their data caps. This is an article that struck a little too close to home, because I have been debating leaving Verizon Wireless if they drop my unlimited data plan. I’ve got Sprint on speed dial, just waiting for the day.
But the Kotaku article raised several important points about the practice of bandwidth capping from internet service providers.
Cloud Services & Streaming
All of these companies are looking to get people more involved in cloud based services like Amazon’s and iTunes’s music storage, Dropbox, Netflix streaming, Video chats through things like Skype and Google Hangout, Streaming music like Pandora and Last.FM. All of these are bandwidth hogs, and monthly data caps mean that users will have to debate whether or not to use a service, even if they like it, because it could kill their internet usage FOREVER.
Internet as Human Right
As the UN declared recently, people are increasingly coming to the realization that the internet is a human right. From being able to criticize those in power, to organizing collectively, even to peaceful interactions with government social services. Not to mention the ubiquitous need to access the internet for employment reasons (from getting a job, to training, and actually working onlilne). The usage of the internet permeates our society as much as electricity does. Do deny someone access to the internet, as these insane three strikes laws are doing, is to cut people out of society entirely.
It’s the opinion of the Kotaku author, and I concur, that the primary reason why cable companies want to cap data rates and throttle bandwidth is because they are facing real competition from the internet as a content distribution method. Netflix makes available on demand streaming video content which directly competes, and far exceeds Comcast’s “on demand” feature in a very real way. So Comcast chooses to institute bandwidth caps, to actively harm a competing service, just because they control the pipeline. Also, some of the bizarre proposed “net neutrality” models still do much of the same thing, throttling companies your ISP doesn’t like and allowing faster access to those it does. Especially on mobile platforms.
Internet as a Public Utility
While most public utilities are among the most hated brands in America there is something to be said for rethinking data as a utility. Have it taken over by a municipal government and distributed like water and power. You pay for what you use, just like you do with water and power. Given some cities’ municipal governments though, I would shudder to think about the hell that could happen if that were the case, but you never know. By removing the ISP from the services of other content providers (like phone services and cable television) you create a truly neutral playing field for the internet to grow and experiment as it needs to do.
ISPs are just a part of the picture though. In one of the new TEDGlobal videos Rebecca MacKinnon talks about the problems inherent in our relationship with the internet that can arise between governments and corporations who attempt to control people’s activities on the net. Our relationship to the internet is a mediated experience, mediated by governments and corporations. With Governments we at least have some measure of redress, but with corporations less so. Her call to action is to work toward a Magna Carta moment with corporations. It’s pretty radical, and desperately needed if we’re planning to actually encourage innovation and exploration of what this communications platform can actually do.