I was able to go to the Freedom to Connect conference earlier this month on behalf of WISPA. Net neutrality was one of the hot topics of the conference, but there was a lot of disagreement on how it should (or should not) be controlled. This email about the subject provides a decent understanding of the sort of thing that will start to happen over the next few years for users of telco and cable broadband services. This is a tough issue. On one hand, I don't really want to have any legislation out there that tells me how to run my network. On the other hand, I don't want to have my BACKBONE provider prioritizing or de-prioritizing traffic to my network according to who is paying THEM. Spam emails are just the tip of the iceberg.
This one is going to get ugly real fast.

Matt Larsen

-------- Original Message --------
Subject:        [DDN] Net Neutrality and AOL ...It Begins
Date:   Sat, 15 Apr 2006 00:22:14 -0500
From:   Dave A. Chakrabarti <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>
Reply-To: The Digital Divide Network discussion group <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>
Organization:   CTCNet Chicago
To: The Digital Divide Network discussion group <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>, [EMAIL PROTECTED], Sascha Meinrath <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>, Jim Craner <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>, [EMAIL PROTECTED], Gabriela <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>

I received an email today from the EFF that really brought home to me how urgent this net neutrality debate really is. If you're like me, you've been thinking that it's important, but haven't really understood how or what you can do about it, or why it's so urgent...everything seems to be played out in political power circles at a relatively slow pace, while life here in Chicago has a million demands that I have to attend to that just seem much more immediate.

That changed for me today. For those of you out of the loop with AOL's involvement in this: AOL has recently proposed a filtering system that allows corporate users to pay a fee to bypass someone's spam filtering. If you have an AOL account, this means that AOL can charge me to send you a mailing. Or it can ask the DDN to pay a fee to make sure these emails continue to get to you. It can send spam back to your inbox even though you don't want it there...because spammers tend to have a *lot* of money to spend if it means bypassing someone's spam filters.

Now they've taken it to another level. If you send someone an email asking them to take a critical look at AOL's new policy, your email will be filtered out. That's right. If I want to email a friend of mine who happens to be using an AOL account, and I even mention a certain website, AOL will bounce the email back to me saying that user doesn't exist. You know what? Since this email contains "AOL" and "filter" and a bunch of other terms that look suspiciously like I might not be asking you to buy AOL stock, members of this email list *may not* receive this email. If I include the actual URL I'm talking about (a site designed to ask AOL users and others to ask the company not to move forward with this), it's *guaranteed* that members of this list will not receive that email. Or receive any other email from today, if they're receiving DDN list stuff in digest form. Someone at DDN is going to get a bunch of bouncebacks that look like those addresses don't work anymore...but wait, they do! They just don't work if you're trying to make people aware of what AOL is doing.

So there it is...the first salvo in the net neutrality wars. Or perhaps the nth salvo, if you ask Sascha Meinrath or others who've been talking about this for months now. AOL is censoring its email service in a direct effort to control what information its users have access to...hoping to stifle debate on this in the process.

Ironically, in doing so, I would think they've shot themselves in the foot. They're claiming this was an effort to "protect" their users from spam...but now those users are becoming aware that there is email they are not *allowed* to receive anymore which really does *not* look like spam. Some users have tested this by sending themselves email on this, to their AOL accounts, only to have them bounce. Presumably, we shouldn't think about this too hard either, or big brother will be angry with us. We might not get our shiny AOL CDs in the mail anymore.

Seriously...what were they thinking? Couldn't they at least have built an intelligent filtering system that allowed users to bypass this filter when sending to themselves, or sending to previously-contacted email addresses...just something, so it might hamper their efforts, but not make it so blatantly obvious what the company is trying to do? Then they could at least *pretend* not to be the evil empire. How hard is it to stick a bunch of if-then logic gates in your filters to make things a little more subtle? I can only conclude that the company simply didn't see the point of taking those measures...they seem to work on the basis that they have complete and total control of their customer base. (Given their product, this is stunning).

What's next? If my blog criticizes AOL, does that mean that anyone using AOL or Time Warner can't see my site anymore? Can Microsoft build an operating system that doesn't allow users to visit getfirefox.com, because it's a competing product? Wait a minute, didn't the courts smack MS with some serious fines (here and in the EU) to specifically prevent this, back in the IE vs. Netscape days? I'm not even going to speculate on what Comcast or SBC could do with this precedent...they're probably sitting up and salivating.

Does this mean Bush could cut off all access to anti-Bush content, or even critical discussions of the current situation in the United States or in Iraq, by paying the corporations a certain amount? Wow...that's so much easier than all this coopting the press and fear-mongering stuff. Could a company cut access to critical content to make their products look better online (AOL's doing precisely that, after all)?

In every one of these scenarios, we're giving an entity with money total control over what we see, hear, and say online. To think that this will not eventually affect how we think is naive. Would we think Osama Bin Laden was so terrible if this had been the case a decade ago? What if he'd had more money than the Bushes and all we saw when we got online was pro-Islamic propaganda, with access to Myspace cut off in favor of OsamaSpace? What would our kids grow up thinking? Are political lines going to be drawn based on which ISP we use?

So what we do? I'm hoping wiser minds than mine will chime in at this point (from non AOL accounts) and give me some suggestions. I, for one, am planning on contacting the few people I know who do use AOL, offline, and explaining to them why I think it's time they switched email accounts...no matter how long they've used it, or how attached they are to it.

I'm cc'ing a few others on this list who might have something valuable to contribute to this dialog...please excuse the cross-posting. My sympathies to whoever's managing the bounces on these mailing lists, especially if we have a lot of subscribers from AOL accounts.

How do we stop the internet from fragmenting?


Dave A. Chakrabarti
Projects Coordinator
CTCNet Chicago
(708) 919 1026

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