The news: AT&T is pursuing a patent that will help Internet Service Providers (ISPs) detect what type of content users are consuming on the Internet and will allow companies to charge higher rates for accessing different services.
Titled “Prevention Of Bandwidth Abuse Of A Communications System,” the patent describes a credits-based system where data being downloaded can be checked to determine if it is “permissible” or “non-permissible.” Non-permissible data are specific types of high bandwidth activities that the provider would like to regulate, such as file-sharing and movie downloads. When detected, accessing non-permissible data would result in a deduction of credits, allowing the ISP to levy additional fees, apply sanctions, or cancel service in response.
The patent, which was filed in September but brought to the attention of the Internet community last week, has angered many net neutrality advocates who believe that the Internet should remain a free and open resource for all.
Why is this a big deal? Net neutrality is the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, so providers are not be able to charge differentially on the basis of user or content, ensuring consumer choice, and a level playing field for competition in service provision.
Two weeks ago a Washington, D.C., district court decision dealt a huge blow to net neutrality by overturning part of the Federal Communications Commission‘s (FCC) Open Internet Order 2010 which mandated for tight regulation of ISPs by classifying them under the same “common carrier” status as older telephone carriers. In its absence, service providers such as AT&T and Verizon may be allowed to engage in profitable data differentiation activities such as traffic shaping or tiered servicing.
What this means for you: Chances are that over the last month you’ve used the Internet to download Beyonce’s latest album, check out the new Mad Men episode on Netflix, or joined a riotous game of multiplayer GTA 5 on Steam. Consuming different types of multimedia content freely and easily is a large part of what makes the Internet enjoyable and productive for so many around the world.
This freedom of choice is currently being challenged by a push from large ISPs to privately discriminate what data consumers can access. Unless federal law can deliver on tighter regulation of these corporations, we could be seeing a lot more of these restrictive patents being awarded and implemented in future, changing how we use the Internet, who can use it, and who benefits from it, forever.