Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The All-Private Internet

Here's an excellent op-ed pertaining to fair use, hi-definition video media, and so forth:
Down With the High-Def DVD Copy Police
In particular, I wanted to comment on one thing that the author just mentions in passing:
Remember, there's no public space on the Internet. Every Web page, no matter how "public" or "user-generated," is privately owned. This means that every Web page can be attacked by the lawyer-bots, or yanked by fearful owners and ISPs.
The main reason for this problem is that the internet doesn't work the way it's supposed to. What I mean is that, in the early days, any computer that was hooked up to the network could use that network in any way, limited only by its own bandwidth and hardware capabilities. It could, for instance, run its own web server software, so the owner of that computer could post his own webpage that he owned, in its entirity.

However, when the internet started to become popular, that wide-open access began to be restricted. These days, when an average Joe signs up for some type of internet service, he is specifically not allowed to host his own website on his own computer. I've tested this myself, and have found that port 80, the port typically used for the HTTP protocol, is only one-way on my Roadrunner connection (I know, I know--http requires two-way communication to work, but believe me, I have tried setting up a test webpage on my computer, and it can't be accessed from anywhere, so that port is being restricted somehow). This is fairly standard nowadays, and the usual reason given for it is that the ISPs have bandwidth concerns, due to most of them standardizing on assymetrical connections--i.e., less upstream bandwidth than downstream, which could cause problems if someone hosts a website that generates a lot of traffic.

However, this argument is suspect. Take the instance of DSL, which is fairly common. Yes, DSL is typically assymetrical. But DSL also features one line per customer. When you have a DSL connection, you are not sharing it with anyone. So what difference does it make if you use all of your upstream bandwidth? Are they concerned that so many of their subscribers will do that that they will have other problems further up the pipeline? I suppose that is possible, but how do they know how many of their subscribers are likely to host popular webservers?

For cable subscribers like myself, the ISPs' complaint seems more legitimate, since multiple users in the same area do share one local connection, and one user monopolizing that for long periods could cause problems. However, I must say that, at certain times in the past, I've been a pretty heavy user of Bittorrent, having torrents seeding (i.e. uploading) for literally dozens of hours at a stretch, and presumably using up most of the upstream bandwidth for a good part of that time. I never once caught any heat for it. Part of that is probably due to the fact that I set my Bittorrent client to only use a percentage of the total bandwidth, in order to avoid choking off my own connection, and also because I tend to gravitate towards letting the torrents run in the middle of the night, or during the workday, when fewer residential customers are likely to be online (and when Azureus's habitual CPU-hogging is less likely to irritate me). But still, that's some fairly heavy bandwidth usage there, and nobody seemed to mind. And yet, I am prohibited from running one puny little webserver on my own computer. Why?

I have an uncle who got around this by running a webserver on his PC using port 81 instead of port 80. I should say, though, that he cleared this with his ISP beforehand. And it's just a family website, when he wants to share some photographs or whatever with friends and relatives. Using port 81 for http entails a slight modification to a URL:

This would get you to the Blogger server on port 81 (although it probably won't work, since I imagine Blogger doesn't have its servers set up to respond on that port...and you might also run into firewall problems, depending on your situation).

I would not recommend that you try this with your own server, at least not without clearing it with your ISP first. This is not just a matter of having port 80 blocked--you may be contractually prohibited from using your internet service to run a web server (in fact, the contract probably just says "server" rather than "web server").

Why? What do they care, anyway? I guess the point I have been trying to arrive at is my suspicion that they don't care so much about the bandwidth as about preventing people from owning their own chunks of the internet. Remember that almost all ISPs in the United States today are owned by giant media corporations--essentially, they are your competitors. They want people viewing (and purchasing) their content, not yours. They don't earn any ad revenue from someone viewing your website.

While this concern for money is understandable (corporations are required to do what they can to make as much money as they can, and manipulating the legal landscape has long been considered an acceptable way of pursuing that goal), there is a more serious effect of these restrictions, namely what I quoted above: the net effect of it all is that the entire internet is private property. And courts have already ruled that there is no such thing as free speech on private property.


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