Haggling over the bill for internet's free lunch

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 June, 2006, 12:00am


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If there is one thing that stands out from all the change wrought to our lives over the past decade by the internet it is its egalitarianism - equal rights and opportunity for all.

It has liberated free speech and democratised access to information. The world has shared in the explosive expansion of blogs, free newspapers, personal videos, web cameras, downloaded films and music, internet telephony and the convergence of the internet and mobile phones.

This egalitarianism has the potential to bridge the gap between rich and poor countries as access to the information superhighway expands. The web is an empowering force for communities and individuals as well as governments and corporations.

Next time you sign on to the internet, however, it might be time to reflect on the maxim that there is no such thing as a free lunch. If someone is getting something for nothing, someone else ends up paying for it, or there is a social cost.

Telecommunications and cable companies in the United States that carry internet traffic on their networks say the bill for the free lunch is due - and they should not have to pay. They are going to have to invest in upgrading their networks because they are becoming congested by increasing numbers of video files. They say that popular websites such as Google that use large amounts of bandwidth should pay for priority access.

As we report today, this will in effect be a toll on the information superhighway. It will lead to tiered pricing and service. The real losers in the end could be smaller players. They fear their sites will be hard to reach or that they too will be forced to pay. Individuals posting their own videos or blogs online could find their websites in the slow lane or blocked altogether.

The proposal is opposed by an internet coalition ranging from bloggers to giants including Microsoft, eBay, Google and Amazon.

The telecoms and cable companies have won round one in the US House of Representatives, which voted against an amendment enshrining 'net neutrality' in new federal telecommunications legislation.

Round two will take place in the US Senate late this month, when the commerce, science and transportation committee will vote on its version of the new legislation.

'Net neutrality' is a bid to preserve the internet's open nature. Without it, Google might never have got off the ground as an offshoot of Stanford University if it had had to pay 'congestion fees', according to founder Sergey Brin.

The net has ushered in a new age of enlightenment. Its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, says it will be followed by a 'dark period' if access suppliers are allowed to prioritise traffic.

Hong Kong has one of the world's highest rates of internet usage. There is a saying, 'how goes the US goes the world'. It means we have an interest in the outcome of the deliberations of the Senate.