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ESPN360 and Reverse Net Neutrality

So after the massive, content-free debate about network neutrality, there is finally something concrete to discuss. Recently, several people have been writing about ESPN360: a website that attempts to block subscribers arriving from an ISP who is not a subscriber. Essentially, they are trying to replicate the cable subscription model (get your ISP to pony up money so that you can see this stuff) only on the web.

It would be hard to overstate just how foolish (and wrongheaded) this is. But the entire escapade makes some very important points in the debate about net neutrality. That debate was never about some mythically “neutral” network, but was rather about the ever-shifting balance of power between content and eyeballs. Content providers (Google, Yahoo, BBC, and evidently ESPN) believe that users want their content more than their content wants the users. And so, a new battle is begun. Who has more leverage: the pretty pictures or the glassy eyeballs?

An ESPN360-style charge-for-content scheme is not completely unprecedented. Content providers are constantly trying to figure out how to get paid for their wares on the Internet. Most content themselves with revenue from advertising. Some successfully charge money for access to their content while others fail miserably.

There are other fascinating twists, such as the BBC’s UK-only multicast trial. There the BBC offered interprovider multicast peering (unique in the history of the Internet, where multicast has mostly been a niche, on-net solution) for UK-based service providers willing to restrict access to BBC content to their UK-based customers. I’m not clear on the business model behind this other than the fact that British taxpayers pay for the BBC through their quaint and amusing television license fee and the BBC tries to make money by licensing the content outside of the UK.

But back to the so-called debate about net neutrality. I’ve said before that I thought that the majority of that debate was so confused as to be unintelligible. The only charitable and coherent interpretation states that companies like Google were afraid that companies like AT&T were going to block or slow down their content unless they charged a licensing fee. The idea was that Internet access providers were going to use their stranglehold on the consumer to try to force content providers to pay them. Content providers raised a serious ruckus. They got Members of Congress in the US to seriously look at regulating the Internet to prevent the evil AT&T from charging them.

Of course, saner minds pointed out that having Congress try to regulate the Internet was sheer madness. Congress are notorious for meddling in things they know nothing about, and rarely to positive effect. This ESPN360 debacle points out what is further obvious: these problems are market problems. If large masses of users don’t care to have real access to the unfiltered Internet, nothing is going to make them willing to pay for that. On the other hand, if carriers (or site operators) try to serve up a restricted version of the Internet and users care, there will be a market response (as there clearly was in this case).

There’s a role for regulation and oversight, mostly in the requirement that companies not lie to customers about what they’re getting. But as soon as we start passing laws to try to pour legal cement over the idea of Internet access, we’re going to slow or completely halt progress in the evolution of that service. Think back to eight years ago. If we were engaged in this same conversation eight years ago, would we think to put in requirements about the quality and availability of video services? If we didn’t what use would the Internet be to us now?

Apologies, by the way, for the long summer break. I’ll shortly be blogging more over on the Babbledog site (more on that in the near future). But there are still some network-engineering-related topics that I’ll address here from time to time.

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