February 4, 2009 · Lessig
In the world of debates about network neutrality, consumption caps have an ambiguous status. Some see it as a kind of discrimination. Others, not. I’ve not been convinced they tend to support strategic behavior. But a recent experience in New Zealand did wonders to convince me of the harm they will do to the development of the Internet that could be.
I subscribe to TV series through iTunes. House is one of those series. When a new episode is released, my iTunes was configured to download it automatically, at least if iTunes was opened. The downloading happens the background.
In November, I was in New Zealand. After I arrived, I went to the hotel, signed up for (insanely expensive) Internet service, synced my iPhone, and turned to the task of answering the one billion emails that had filled my inbox in the time it takes to fly from SFO to New Zealand. About 30 minutes into my work, a message flashed on my screen that I had “violated the ethical rules” of the network to which I had just paid $50 for 1 days access. And because I had violated ethical rules, I was to be “fined” NZ $100 (about another $50).
Seems the service I had paid $50 to purchase had a 1GB download cap attached to it. My House episode was 1.5GB (stupidly, iTunes pushes you buy HD). So midway through the download, the service cut off my connection and charge my room the fine for unethical behavior.
No doubt, Internet in New Zealand is expensive (though more competition may help). And of course, 1GB is ordinarily quite sufficient for normal use (though when I prepare a talk, it is quite easy for me to consume much more than that as I find stuff (including videos) to include in my talk). And obviously, I had agreed to the contract, and whether intentionally or not, I had violated the limits of the conflict.
But the point is this: When companies like Time Warner suggest bandwidth caps are just about stopping “piracy,” that’s not quite true. They’re also about stopping lots of other business models that try to leverage the real potential of fast, cheap Internet access (assuming of course we can get fast, cheap Internet, or keep it where we’ve got it).