net.wars: Only connect

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 26 December 2003

Back when the Net was young - when the men were men, the women were men, and the electrons were all nervous - we used to talk about how important it was to support small, independent ISPs. In fact, I once got email from a reader trashing me for having a CompuServe account on just that basis.

Wendy M Grossman

The principle still stands. The smaller the number of companies that control access to the Internet, the more easily they are controlled. The larger those companies are, the less they will care about Internet freedoms or even simply the right to experiment and implement new ideas.

The last half of the 1990s saw a lot of consolidation among ISPs. Most of any size wound up being owned either by telcos or Earthlink. In the UK, for example, Demon got bought by Scottish Telecom (a subsidiary of Scottish Power, the company that then ludicrously renamed itself Thus), Pipex got bought by UUnet, which in turn got eaten by Worldcom along with most of the rest of the Internet backbone. In the US, Earthlink swallowed up Mindspring, Netcom, and all sorts of others. CompuServe itself is now billed as AOL's "budget arm".

But the real consolidation didn't begin until broadband arrived. Now, in a lot of places in the US you're lucky if you have a choice of supplier, and when you do it's usually between DSL from one of the giant telcos or cable from one of the giant cable companies. Things are a little better in the UK, where if you can get DSL you can at least choose from ISPs from big to personal, although the cable companies are still huge and the ultimate supplier of DSL is almost always BT.

Which brings us to Comcast. Larry Lessig wrote in his book The Future of Ideas about the possibility that given a few subtle changes to the Internet's infrastructure it would be relatively easy for the cable companies or another small handful of telcos or other large businesses to take control of the Net, turning it into the kind of closed systems TV or the old telephone networks used to be. This dire prediction may be upon us.

I was at a friend's house and wanted to do something simple - VPN into my home network and get my contact manager to exchange data with its mate sitting on my desktop. Couldn't understand why it didn't work. So I did the things you do: I fiddled. I got someone on the other end to inspect the router settings. Went through all the settings on the computer with the incoming connection. No. Google search!

My friends are Comcast subscribers. Comcast has been progressively turning on functions to block VPN traffic for the last four or five months. If you fight through the Comcast site to find the terms of service you discover that's only the beginning. Under their rules prohibiting you from using your Internet connection for "any business purpose" you are arguably in violation if you so much as buy a book from Amazon.com.

There's always been a general expectation among Internet users that the Internet connection you buy is limited only by its speed. It's telecommunications. Does the phone company tell you it contravenes the terms of residential service if you use your phone at home to call sales prospects one day a week? But US cable companies are used to supplying packages of TV channels and thinking in tiers; unlike their counterparts elsewhere they have not been in the business of selling phone service. Maybe they think VPN is just another premium channel, like Home Box Office.

This is assuming you don't buy this argument that the problem is the amount of traffic VPN usage generates. I'm sure there are exceptions, but I bet the average VPN user is less of a drain on the network than the average file-sharer, even the average *legal* file-sharer. If you wanted to ensure that Internet usage was fairly parcelled out among your residential users, you wouldn't block specific applications, you'd simply throttle their bandwidth. Comcast simply wants to push anyone it can onto the more expensive $95 a month "professional" service.

In fact, although phone companies do not now monitor your phone usage and demand you switch to a business service if they think you're operating a business on your residential phone, they did at one time - back in the old AT&T monopoly days. Comcast is behaving like a monopoly supplier, and realistically, in many areas that's exactly what it is. You may argue that cable companies, like anyone else, have the right to set their terms and conditions any way they want, and if you don't like it you can take your business elsewhere. But very often there is no competing supplier, particularly since Comcast acquired this part of AT&T's business.

The lack of competing suppliers is also true in their main business of selling cable TV subscriptions. Franchises in the US were granted by local towns to what once were tens of thousands of independent suppliers, who largely got bought up in the 1980s by what became a tiny handful of nationals. Comcast owns and operates a few TV channels, which it sells to subscribers.

One of the first big anti-trust suits forced the movie studios to exit the business of owning theatres. Along about ten years from now, Comcast could be next and on the same basic principle: content suppliers should not own the distribution chain. Which, by then, will be increasingly the Internet. Blocking VPN traffic is a bad omen.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).