Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Net Neutrality and You

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the idea of “Net Neutrality”. What is it? What does it mean? And how does it impact me? These are questions you might ask. And these questions are a little bit difficult to answer.

What is it?

It all begins with the word “Bandwidth”. This is a buzzword that gets thrown around tech circles quite a bit. It basically means: how much data is flowing through any system. If you could take on the old “Information Superhighway” metaphor, a high-traffic road that takes you to very busy destinations would be like a high-bandwidth connection. You might imagine a beltway freeway around a busy city. Conversely, a low-traffic side street could be compared to low-bandwidth. There’s not as many people hitting those websites.

There’s also certain kinds of data that require higher bandwidth. Pictures, for example, have generally bigger file sizes than text. Audio is even bigger still. Video files are the largest of all. Imagine that these are like vehicles on the road. Someone driving a motorcycle can zip and turn into any little side street and park wherever he finds a spot. Someone driving a car is more limited in where they can go. A big semi pulling three trailers had better stay pretty much on the freeway. What I’m saying is that the big stuff needs high-bandwidth to carry it effectively.

So, what’s happening is that some people are starting to talk about certain kinds of content being allowed only on certain kinds of connections. And if a site needs more bandwidth, they’d be required to pay for the bigger roads.

On the surface that makes sense. Those that use it more need to pay for it more, right?

But the trouble is that it also sets up a tiered system of access. The big sites, that use lots of traffic, and are making more money because of it, can afford the better access. The smaller sites can’t afford it, and some say that will weaken them and marginalize them.

It goes even further. Some want to “Buy Out” certain internet roads, so that only their content vehicles can drive on them. If this is allowed, then the big companies will be able to successfully lock out smaller enterprises, and the playing field, which has been getting bumpier and bumpier already, will no longer even be close to level.

What should you do about it?

First of all, get informed. There’s lots of information, both technical, social, and political on the net about the issue. First, go to and do a search for net neutrality. Do the same at Google and Yahoo. Read the opinions on both sides of the argument. How do you feel about it?

Second, get involved. Let your congresspersons know how you feel. Go to, find your representatives, and send them a message. Don’t copy anyone else’s letter, but write your own. Include your story, your business, your needs. Tell them how this issue will impact you directly, in clear and calm terms.

My father used to say, there are three types of people: Those that make things happen, those that watch things happen, and those that wonder what happened. Which one do you want to be?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Tool or Toy?

Tool or Toy?

I can remember one summer afternoon as a kid, I got together with some friends, and for some reason, we got this idea in our heads to dig a foxhole. So, we grabbed some shovels, found a spot in our backyard, and started digging. I’m sure we spent the better part of the afternoon and early evening throwing dirt out of our growing foxhole, then playing “battle” in it.

When I came back in the house that night, I was a mess. While I was taking my bath, I was telling my mom all about how much fun we had digging and playing in the dirt.

My mom just didn’t get it. She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t pay me enough money to dig up potatoes in the garden, but I’d spend a full day of my valuable summer vacation digging for fun.

Sheesh. Moms.

But as I look back on that, I think of the shovel. Was it a tool, a device created to get work done, or was it a toy, designed to bring a good time? What IS the difference between work and play?


Well, basically, “work” is when you do something that you have to. “Play” is when you do something you don’t have to. I “work” on the ‘net all day. When I come home, I often get back on the ‘net and “play”.

And where does technology fit into that? For my mom, the shovel was a tool. She didn’t have time to play with it, so it only got used as a tool. For me, I couldn’t stand working, but I loved playing, so it only got used as a toy. The same is true of technology.

For a long time, my wife was completely disinterested in the computer. I was fascinated by it. For her, it was a way to get some things done. For me, it was something to play with. As a result, I learned how to use it very quickly. Also, as a result, she was constantly asking me how to do things on the computer. She only asked when she needed to get something done, and she didn’t want me to show her any other cool things you could do with it. For my wife, it was a tool, and she had no interest in it beyond that.

But I learned how to find bulletin boards, and make pictures, and websites, and find programs, and customize my desktop, and play games, and… you get the picture. Today, for example, I’m so hooked in with my tech, that I carry my cell phone/pda/mp3 player/game set around my neck on a noose. Well, actually it’s a lanyard, but some days I wonder…

Bit by bit, as my wife’s interest grew, and as her need for the tool grew, she became more and more connected to the computer. Even to the point where she’s set up a wireless network on her own, and even set up video chat with my parents.

OK, so what does all this rambling mean?

You might look at your computer and say, “This is a tool to help me make money.” And you’d be right. That’s what it’s there for. But that’s not all that it can do. If you let yourself play with it a bit, you’ll be surprised what you can learn. And one of my core beliefs is: The more you know, the more you can earn.

Your business is an Internet Business. That means that in addition to knowing your business (your products, your customers, etc) you must also know the internet, and the technology that carries your message.

So, take your shovel out in the back yard and dig a hole!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Freedom and Rights?

Censorship. It’s one of those words we use that means lots of different things to lots of different people. It’s one of those words that’s very emotionally charged, one that sends blood pressures rising and tensions mounting.

On a purely academic level, censorship is something that prevents some sort of expression. It’s all around us, in various forms, and we all do it. It’s not just when an oppressive government stamps out an opposition newspaper. It’s also when a public library decides not to buy a certain book because it’s too lewd, or when a school filters its internet service. It’s also happening when your wife asks you, “Now be honest, does this skirt make my butt look big?”

So, not all censorship is evil. Sometimes it’s very appropriate. Not all censorship is good, either.

But we’ve built our society around certain rights, and one of those rights is free speech. And, essentially, another of those rights is free enterprise. And there are times when those can collide. Let me tell you a story.

Many years ago, I was working full-time in the music industry, and I signed on with a program for the distribution of independent music. “Indies”, as they are called, are musicians that are self-produced, and usually not signed to a record label. If they are signed, then it’s to a smaller label that’s not tied to any of the big boys.

The man that ran this distribution network (called the Independent Musicians’ Co-op, or IMC) had set some standards for the artists that he wanted to carry. In addition to making sure that the music had a baseline of studio quality (no living-room recordings here), he also wanted to make sure that there were no albums listed that were blatantly offensive or obscene.

At the time, one of the projects I’d recorded was a metal band, and while their music wasn’t foul or obscene, the cover they’d chosen for the album was pretty violent. So much so, that I wasn’t sure that it would be appropriate for the IMC.

So, I met with the owner.

He reviewed the material, and as we talked about it, we both agreed that it was borderline. He wanted to include as diverse a musical base as he could, but the cover was just too much. He was quite apologetic to me, partly because we were friends, and partly because he’d not had to approve a project that was so edgy before.

He commented that he didn’t want anyone to scream, “Censorship!” at him, but he felt the cover to be too violent.

At the time, I told him what has since solidified into my own personal understanding and policy. I told him that I didn’t feel that his choice was inappropriate at all. He wasn’t telling the band what they could or could not do. He wasn’t forbidding them or controlling them. They still had every right and every freedom to make the music they wanted and to put any cover they wanted on it. They also had the right to explore any distribution method they wanted. They had full freedom of speech.

Here’s how it applies to the business world: I also told him that he, as a business owner, had the full right (under the rights of free enterprise) to decide what his business would sell. If a product didn’t fit with his vision for his business, or if it didn’t fit appropriately with his audience, then he had every right to decline it.

See, just because one person has the right to free speech, doesn’t mean that the rest of the world has the obligation to listen to it. Just because a product is released doesn’t mean that every store in the world has to sell it. If you don’t believe in it, don’t stock it on your shelves.

And if that makes some people scream about censorship, then let them. We all have our rights!