'Net neutrality' is a new wrinkle in Web content competition

September 15, 2010 

In the analog world of my youth, inventive marketers sought to increase the visibility of their enterprises by naming them something like "AAA widgets," so that theirs would be the first widget company a user would encounter in the phone book.

Larger companies would take out space ads in the yellow pages, and today it’s common for the cover of your new phone book to carry some law or insurance firm’s refrigerator magnet.

In every case, the assumption is that once you’ve grabbed the consumer’s attention, the job is halfway done.

Internet entrepreneurs use the same principle in embellishing their websites. In our mass, Internet-induced social epidemic of attention deficit disorder, though, the trick is to ensure that your site is on the first page retrieved by a Google search — because few users get so far as the second page. That involves impregnating your site with the right algorithm of indexing, linkages, and magic words. If even that fails, you can always “sponsor” — ie. purchase — the right to be featured prominently in any relevant query.

It has always seemed to me that the latter practice, especially, runs somewhat afoul of the Internet’s ideological egalitarianism. Here, information isn’t so much democratized as it is marketed. To the unwary, it may seem that sponsored information bears some seal of approval.

There’s a new wrinkle to this issue. “Net neutrality” is the principle that Internet users should be able to access any Web content or applications, without restrictions from the service provider. I’m generally willing to live with the idea that it may be harder to find my website, but once you do, you should be able to use it in exactly the same way as you would one of those fancy sponsored sites. How else can our ideas and products be evaluated fairly? Today, though, even that liberty may be in peril.

Google and Verizon, two of the biggest players in the networked information economy, are conspiring on an agreement that would permit Verizon to create superfast wireless Internet access for those sites with deep-pocketed owners willing to pay for it. Euphemistically named “managed services,” these would constitute the equivalent of a first-class pass to the front of a long, slow line.

Let’s put this in a real-world scenario. Given a choice, would you rather watch a seamless, real-time video on YouTube (owned by Google) or wait endlessly for the video to load from some other site?

Think the risk is exaggerated? A recent, independent study determined that one third of net users will wait five seconds for a site to load before looking elsewhere. That’s down from the generally accepted “eight seconds rule” of a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Communication has paid lip-service to the goal of exerting regulation over broadband Internet access, but has generally bowed to corporate resistance. Will the net become the high-tech equivalent of an infomercial?

When the Internet age dawned, it was heralded as representing the ultimate democratization of information and an unbiased marketplace for ideas. Its founders, including Tim-Berners Lee (the inventor of HTML), envisioned it was a communications medium, first, not a commercial one. Google, as much a part of that revolution as any institution, was founded upon the pledge that it would “do no evil.”

That’s easy, when you’re a successful upstart. It seems harder when you’re a fat cat multinational firm intent upon maximizing market share.

Here’s hoping that the next upstart won’t get blown off the information highway by its hyper-fast rivals who’ve been given a license to speed.

Gregg Sapp, a freelance writing in Olympia, is a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel. His first novel, “Dollarapalooza,” will be published next spring by Switchgrass Books of Northern Illinois University Press. He can be reached at sappgregg@aol.com.

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