I wrote an essay here a year ago on the internet cost contract and how it was the real invention (not packet switching) that made the internet. The internet cost contract is “I pay for my end, you pay for yours, and we don’t sweat the packets.” It is this approach, not any particular technology, that fostered the great things that came from the internet. (Though always-on also played a big role.)
It’s time to re-read that essay because two recent big issues uncover attacks on the contract, and thus no less than the foundation of the internet.
The first is the Goodmail program announced by AOL. The EFF has been a leading member of a coalition pushing AOL to reconsider this program. People have asked us, “how bad can it really be?” Why is putting a price on E-mail so bad?
One particular disturbing thing about the goodmail program is that it reminds me a bit of a protection racket. Goodmail hopes its customers will pay it hundreds of millions of dollars because they are afraid of spam filters. They are selling those customers (who are required to be legitimate mailers sending solicited mail) protection from the spam filters of AOL. Problem is, those spam filters shouldn’t be blocking the legitimate mail at all — it is a flaw in the filters that makes people want to buy protection from them. They’re buying protection from something that shouldn’t be harming them in the first place. An ISP, like AOL, would normally be expected to have the duty to deliver legitimate mail to its customers. To serve those customers, they also block spam. Now, unlike the mobster selling protection, AOL’s spam-blockers are not blocking the legitimate mail maliciously, but that’s about the only difference, and part of why this smells bad.
This has been my direct criticism of the program on its own. Goodmail says it’s really a certification program. There have been IETF standards to sign E-mail and get certificates for signers for a long time, and many “Certificate Authority” companies of all stripes who sell such a process. They don’t charge per message, though.
The charging per message sets a nasty precedent which is an attack on the internet cost contract. It violates the rule about not sweating the individual traffic. I pay for my end, you pay for yours. As soon as we start deciding some traffic is good and bad, and some traffic has to pay to transit the pipes or get through the filters, we’ve taken a step backwards to the settlement based networks that the internet defeated decades ago.
In the 70s and 80s the world had many online services you paid for by the hour. It had MCI mail, which you paid to send. It had packet switched X.25 networks you paid for by the kilopacket. They were all crushed by the internet, not just in cost, buy in innovation. AOL, the last of the online services, had to adopt the internet model in almost all respects to avoid a slope to doom.
The idea of a two-tier internet, which many have been writing about recently, has generated the debate on a subject called network neutrality. Sometimes the problem is attempts to block services entirely based on what they are (such as blocking VoIP that competes with the phone service of the company that owns the wires.) Other times it’s a threat that companies providing high-bandwidth services, like video and voice, should “pay their share” and not get a “free ride” on the pipes that “belong” to the telco or cable ISPs.
Once again, the goal is to violate the contract. The pipes start off belonging to the ISPs but they sell them to their customers. The customers are buying their line to the middle, where they meet the line from the other user or site they want to talk to. The problem is generated because the carriers all price the lines at lower than they might have to charge if they were all fully saturated, since most users only make limited, partial use of the lines. When new apps increase the amount a typical user needs, it alters the economics of the ISP. They could deal with that by raising prices and really delivering the service they only pretend to sell, or by charging the other end, and breaking the cost contract. They’ve rattled sabres about doing the latter.
The contract is worth defending not just because it gives us cheap internet or flat rates. It is worth defending because it fosters innovation. It lets people experiment with services that would get shut down quickly if people got billed per packet. Without the cost contract, great new ideas will never get off the ground. And that would be the real shame.