Internet democracy going offline

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There has been a lot of talk on newspaper technology pages recently about the threat to "net neutrality" - the principle that all information available online should be kept freely and equally accessible by the networks that provide access to them.

Say, for example, that my home broadband service is provided by BT. I spend a sizeable chunk of my time visiting three websites: YouTube, BBC News and Socialist Review. Despite the fact that YouTube and the BBC have internet services far in advance of Socialist Review's, and considerably greater financial resources, BT gives no preferential treatment to the giants. Sure, YouTube will have hi-tech servers which are faster and perhaps more reliable, but as far as BT is concerned it's all the same.

But internet service providers (ISPs) are less than happy with the current setup. BT, for example, could create a far faster connection between YouTube and the consumer, using specialist networks which avoid the sprawling complexity of the internet. BT would increase its profits through charging a fee for this service, while YouTube could beat its competitors by having a faster and more reliable service. One metaphor used is that of a bus lane on a high street - a bus may be able to move faster, but only at the expense of other road vehicles. So, as the YouTube bus breezes by, Socialist Review and other non-profit websites remain stuck in the traffic. Unlike a bus lane, of course, this would only benefit the wealthy minority.

A new agreement between internet search giant Google and leading US ISP Verizon could spell the end for this neutrality. The agreement, thrashed out last month, decrees that ISPs should indeed be able to create a tiered service, so long as they are transparent about doing so. Part of the agreement, for the internet as we know it today, does rule out blocking websites or employing anti-competitive policies. But it does state that none of this - other than transparency - applies to wireless services. This is of particular concern, because the static internet connection most homes and businesses use today is on its way out as wireless mobile networks develop. The agreement also singles out a further technological probability, 3D services (such as streaming films in 3D), which it states should be made available by ISPs.

So what we may well see in the future is a two-tiered internet. The "public" internet would be free to use, employing the already limited networks currently available. This would host websites unable to pay the premium, such as most blogs, non-profit websites and small businesses. Then there would be a more costly internet, through which streaming video or downloading large files would be far quicker. The logic follows that these services would then cost more to the consumer, with those who couldn't pay - especially those in poorer countries - left in the increasingly slow lane.

Before this agreement came to light, Google painted itself as a leading defender of net neutrality and lobbied regulators to enshrine it, presumably not wanting an extra level of competition which would eat into their profits. But, since this did not come to pass, Google instead built up the size of its own network and jumped the gun on its competitors. In the pursuit of profits, this makes logical sense for the company. And while the Google-Verizon agreement is not law, even in the US, the size and influence of the two parties means that regulators would need to be uncharacteristically stubborn in order to challenge it.

But as the technology press headlines are full of the digital marriage of the decade in the US, here in Britain secret romance has already started to blossom. BT Broadband provides a service called BT Vision, which allows video footage to reach the computer screens of its users at high speeds, even during peak hours. BT Retail bought an assurance off BT Wholesale (confusingly, these are distinct entities) that BT Vision would receive an "assured quality of service". The ISP has also made clear that other companies are welcome to pay for the same preferential treatment.

This is not the final nail in the coffin for democracy online, but neither is it the first. The egalitarian dream of a non-hierarchical internet has long since been corrupted in the pursuit of profits, as corporate giants such as Google, Yahoo and Amazon swallow up competitors and increasingly call the shots. How much further this corruption continues depends on how much people are willing to take.