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2008 October 6 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: Video at the Center of Latest Struggle Over Internet Future

By Reid Goldsborough

The Internet revolution is about a lot of things, not the least of which is video. The changing landscape of how we view video has the old guard nervous, the providers of broadband services trying to profit from it and everyday folks competing with big movie studios in creating and delivering content.

Change inevitably brings conflict. The biggest Internet controversy these days is over “Net neutrality,” also referred to using the more technical term “packet prioritization,” though the meanings are opposite. With Net neutrality, all packets of data are treated equally, none given priority over another, regardless of whether the originator is Disney putting out trailers for its latest blockbuster or your dizzy neighbor putting out home-spun footage of his latest skateboarding mishaps.

Phone and cable companies — those providing the bandwidth — have proposed offering preferential treatment to those willing to pay, enabling visitors to those sites to obtain better quality video. Consumer groups and Internet companies such as Google and Amazon.com support Net neutrality, feeling that pocket prioritization, which they derogatively call “price discrimination,” will give an unfair advantage to large companies and hurt small businesses, non-profits, and individuals.

In testimony before Congress, Vint Cerf, widely hailed as “father of the Internet, said “allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the Internet such a success.”

Filtering content is another aspect of Net neutrality, with numerous instances of Internet service providers blocking or limiting traffic, going far beyond controlling spam, according to Save The Internet (www.savetheinternet.com), an advocacy organization supporting Net neutrality.

Vuze (www.vuze.com), maker of a peer-to-peer video distribution program of the same name, recently contended that major phone and cable companies appeared to be targeting and blocking video content distributed with Vuze.

Cable provider Comcast has been accused of limiting access to content shared with BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer video delivery technology used in part by a company of the same name (www.bittorrent.com).

Phone and cable companies contend that heavy users of video services consume a disproportionate share of Internet bandwidth and slow access for everyone else. They also have pointed out that much of the video content shared is pirated — copyrighted movies, for instance. The Motion Picture Association of America has gone after video pirates using BitTorrent and other video sharing schemes.

The merits of Net neutrality are being thrashed out in Congress. Democrats typically argue for legislation prohibiting broadband providers from creating a fast lane for large video creators. They also argue that the Federal Communication Commission should take action against network operators who interfere with customers’ Internet use. Republicans typically argue for no new legislation and a hands-off stance by the FCC.

At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in April titled “The Future of the Internet,” Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said, “We have an obligation to try and guarantee that the same freedom and the same creativity that was able to bring us to where we are today continues, going forward.”

Patric Verrone, president Writers Guild of America West, argued that without Net neutrality laws, the Internet will be “be turned into a walled garden of content control” that would make it more difficult for new voices to emerge.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow, on the other hand, opposed new regulations, arguing that there’s no evidence that any of his member companies, which include Comcast, engage in “anticompetitive conduct.”

Underlying the consequences of the video explosion, at another forum in April, this one in London, Jim Cicconi, vice president of legislative affairs for AT&T, warned that without significant investment in the infrastructure, the Internet will be overloaded by video and other user-generated content by 2010.

In the meantime, of you’re not currently a consumer of Internet video content, there are easy ways to see what the fuss is all about. Dozens of video hosting services exist, where anyone can upload video and where anyone can view it. Most are free sites supported by advertising while a few provide both free and pay options.

You can view original content as well as snippets of content created by or aired by major movie studios and television networks, including bloopers, famous scenes, and music videos.

The best known and most popular video sharing service in the U.S. is YouTube (www.youtube.com), created in 2005. Other popular services include Google Video (video.google.com), which both hosts videos and lets you search for videos hosted by others, Dailymotion (www.dailymotion.com) in France, and Tudou (www.tudou.com) in China.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.

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