Monday, May 21, 2007

The Importance of Net Neutrality

Many people often hear the term "Net Neutrality", but most either don't know what it means or only have a vague concept of what it means.

Essentially, Network Neutrality means that everyone competes on an even playing field on the Internet, and that broadband providers cannot degrade your connection to certain services on the Internet, such as Google or Myspace. This post is going to focus on the video side of things, which encompasses sites like Youtube and Google Video, and also interactive services like Joost.

Media, both mass-media and independent, is undergoing one of the most significant revolutions ever right now. The technology that currently powers broadcast television is quite limited, in that there are a set number of channels and only 24 hours per-day on each channel. This obviously creates a situation where competition to get your programming onto these limited number of channels, each with a limited amount of time, has driven the price of producing and distributing video content through the roof.

The Internet is changing that. Youtube and Joost are both shining examples of the new media landscape.

Youtube, as everyone knows, is a user-driven video site. Anyone can post any video they please (provided it isn't pornographic or depict severe violence of course...or violate copyright) and it is almost instantly viewable by anyone in the world with access to the Internet.

Joost is slightly different than Youtube. It is almost like a cross between Youtube and traditional broadcast television. While it maintains a lot of the features of traditional broadcast (only partners can use it to distribute content, it has channels, shows are generally of normal and consistent length unlike with Youtube, etc), it sheds almost all of its limitations:

  1. It has a potentially infinite number of channels.
  2. All video on Joost is provided in an "on-demand" format, without the extra hassle and inconvenience of recording your shows.
  3. It is both free for end-users and uses P2P technology (in a legal way) to take the load off of content providers.
As a result of the above features, the barrier of entry to distribute your video content through a professional medium has been lowered significantly.

This is shown by the fact that National Geographic currently has 5 channels of its own on Joost for its content, an entire channel exists strictly for Indy-content, several channels exist for documentaries (most of which were not produced by the major names in the media landscape) and numerous other examples.

Finally, with services like Joost and Youtube, amongst others, everyone can now participate in the mainstream media in a way that was not possible a few short years ago.

Which brings us back to Network Neutrality. Many broadband providers provide television services that compete indirectly with services like Youtube, and directly with Joost. Since the broadband providers are both the "gatekeeper" to the Internet as well as television providers, they may wish to degrade their customers' access to these essential online video services.

This may not seem like such a threat (and it certainly wouldn't be up here in Canada where I have no less than 5 broadband providers to choose from where I currently live), but in many areas down in the United States, consumers have a single broadband provider to choose from.

Without Network Neutrality, if these providers cut off access to these essential services, or degrade them to an essentially unwatchable level, despite the fact that consumers are paying for broadband, the consumers lose all access to these new and innovative technologies. Should for-profit entities really have the power and ability to impede the democratization of mass media? I certainly don't think so.

Which is why you should support Network Neutrality today.


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