Data Capping

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.

Net Neutrality

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.

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6 comments on “Data Capping

  1. Patrick Rady says:

    I dunno… I use the Internet pretty heavily, and I am still somewhat uncomfortable with using the Internet as human right concept here. Mostly because it’s proponents are privileged first worlders getting torqued because they fear their access to Netflix streaming will be limited and they probably don’t give two hoots about the Digital Divide.

    Caps are a bad thing, I’m against them- but playing the human rights card seems shrill and misplaced.

    Where was the concern for Internet human rights when municipal free wireless was getting snuffed all over the country? That would have brought Internet to folks who had none. Applying it to getting cut off because of exceeding a 250GB cap seems like a rather White Whine.

    • Eric S Riley says:

      My partner is fond of using the phrase “first world problems” especially in a sing-songy kind of way when we’re debating on things like whether or not to buy round or triangular tortilla chips. In some respects I think it’s fair to say that someone uploading/downloading a total of 250 gigs a month is probably a bandwidth hog, yes. But is it the right of the ISP to cut that person off for a year? That’s where this becomes a problem.
      The guy who wrote this original article is a professional blogger, games reviewer and tech enthusiast. Using the internet to the max of his capacity is basically a part of just doing his job. When this company decides to arbitrarily cap the data limit to any one household they are cutting someone off from his actual job. That’s like having having the electric company shut down an assembly line because they use too much power. Sure, it’s a first world problem, but it has serious economic repercussions. The first world is actually growing via an information economy. The ISP should not be in the business of deciding who can and cannot access the internet. It may not be water or power, but it can be a livelihood.

      • Eric, the same can be said about phone service and owning a car. But they are not rights. I agree that it is a problem, just not a basic human rights problem.

        P.S. I also love the song “First World Problems” by Jake Farr-Warton.

  2. Patrick Rady says:

    Hell, my household is uncomfortably close to nudging the cap. I hate ’em. I just don’t like things used as pretext- and playing the human rights card- in this case, seems like a pretext. The real problem is that we’ve let the people who run the pipes, also run the content. It isn’t that we are using too much, it is that Comcast doesn’t want us using Netflix.

    And it isn’t even that I necessarily think that Internet isn’t, or shouldn’t be a right, it’s just if that is the case, it should be more about making sure that everyone has at least some free access to the Internet, not that certain Internet-compulsives have a right to huge chunks of it.

  3. Patrick Rady says:

    What worries me, is that these arbitrary caps of Comcast’s are going to play havoc with the grand schemes to get us all to live in the cloud. We back up to the cloud, play our music from the cloud, socialize there. Soon, 250GB is going to feel very small. And big players are pushing us toward the cloud and heavier use: Apple, Google, etc.

    And as my housemate pointed out, Apple could *BUY* Comcast with its wads of cash just sitting around.

    Perhaps one of these cloud-proponent heavy-hitters will have to step in, and provide a way for folks to have “all you can eat Internet.”

  4. […] got some feedback on the post I did last week that the guy who pushed beyond the 250 GB data cap threshold with Comcast basically shouldn’t […]

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