Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Content and Bandwidth Shaping - Free Market Vs. Free Speech

The late great Canadian media expert Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase the "The Medium is the Message". While there are many interpretations of McLuhan's phrase, he seems to indicate we become acustomed to things over time that we once found to be on the edge.

Welcome the Internet. The Internet is constantly changing right before our eyes in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes more subtle.

Two examples are content and bandwidth shaping. What are these two Internet phenomena?

Bandwidth shaping is a way that some Internet Service Providers (ISP's) manage the bandwidth use of their customers. Automated tools allow an ISP to monitor how their clients use the Internet. If the client "hogs" bandwidth through file sharing applications or other methods that allows the client to take up more than their fair share of bandwidth, the ISP shifts some of the services provided to that client into the equivalent of an Internet slow lane.

ISP's argue that this is required to maintain overall network performance and control their costs. Consumers argue that they aren't getting the bandwidth they pay for. Both have a point.

Content shaping is a different thing all together. Content shaping is a method where companies that provide information content on the Internet shape the content that is delivered to a user based on certain criteria. This technology allows a content provider to target specific information directly to you based on some demographic or even perhaps your individual information. Two companies that are current doing this are Google (see and Rogers (see

Content shaping is a hotly debated topic and it will be a delicate issue for all parties including the public, ISP's, content providers, politicians, and governments.

Here is an example: A person (lets call him Bob) has medical condition X, and a big pharmacuetical company (lets call them Big Pharma) has a medical treatment for condition X. It would be reasonable to assume that Big Pharma will pay big bucks to shape content for their product to Bob. So if Bob is searching for information on medical condition X he may only find content targeted to him through content shaping. Bob may not easily find information on the causes or cures of condition X.

In short, organizations with deep pockets will have the resources to shape content and organizations that don't will have a hard time getting their message heard on the internet.

Imagine a person with a drinking problem searching for help, only to be targeted with beer adverstiments. Content shaping makes this possible.

So the question is this: Is content shaping simply good target marketing, or is it an impediment to freedom of information?

One point of view is that content shaping is good for business, while the other point of view is that this will entirely commercialize the Internet thereby destroying the egalitarian premise and functions which the Internet was founded upon. One of the original premises of the Internet was that universal access to information is an equalizing force. Will content shaping change that equalizing force? In my opinion, content shaping will have a significant influence, but commercialiation won't totally dominate.

Simply think of television broadcasting. If the commercial content is ridiculously out of proporation then users will tune out.

I speculate that the next evolution of the Internet is "Internet Channels" where companies shape content based on what users want and give them the straight goods as well. This would be much like the Golf Channel, The Shopping Channel, or the Home and Garden Channel is to broadcast television.

As far as the Internet goes, we will still have to wait and see what effect bandwidth and content shaping has for the masses.

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