10:12 AM

Just How Neutral is the Net? Not Very.

How large ISPs are squeezing the little guy harder than ever by hijacking searches and reporting questionable traffic metrics, which in turn drives up online advertising rates

In early November, reported that when Verizon customers using the company's fiber-optic Internet service (FiOS) mistyped a Web site address, they were redirected to Verizon's own search engine page -- even if they don't have it set as their default.

The practice, which is neither new nor uncommon, has various groups questioning whether or not companies, such as Verizon, are complying with the Internet's spirit of network neutrality.

The seemingly obvious answer to that question is no. As the Internet has matured, competition among Internet Service Providers (ISPs) has intensified. Potential profits from supplying items, even like broadband access, have been eroding. During the past few years fueled largely because of the tremendous success of Google, search and search advertising have become the industry's hot growth areas.

These avenues are driven mainly by numbers: the more folks clicking on page or links; the more revenue generated by the service provider. So is it surprising that these companies would be tempted to tilt the paying field a bit, so it becomes more likely that their pages show up in front of business persons and consumers? Only the nave would say, "Yes."

In fact, Verizon has not been clandestine about its intention. In June, the company announced them as part of a test program for its FiOS services. Customers living in the Midwest, primarily in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, had their pages rerouted. The company dubbed its services Advanced Web Search (sounds nice, doesn't it?) and noted that no software would be loaded onto customers' computers nor would the company collect any personally identifiable information in connection with the service.

The company also provided an opt out function, but critics charge that such functions are not effective. (For mysterious reasons, it does seem that someone opts in once but somehow ends up on multiple mailing lists, and the process of removing oneself from all of these lists seems to be exponentially more difficult than getting on them.)

Perhaps, Verizon felt comfortable announcing its policy because the same trick has been tried by other ISPs, including Charter, Cox, and EarthLink. In fact, top-level domain operator VeriSign attempted to roll out a comprehensive redirecting campaign in 2003, but the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), stepped in and told the company to knock it off.

VeriSign eventually complied with that request, but it is unclear what ICANN would have done if the vendor refused. The organization was created to help with the transition from US government oversight of the Internet to it becoming a self-policing entity. While the organization still helps set policy, its policing power is unclear.

Rather than a potential sanction from ICANN, or another group like it, common sense should dictate that redirecting is bad policy. Yes, a company generates a few more hits but at what price? Let's start with the assumption that the vast majority of folks redirected to a site will stare at the page for a second or two and either retype their Web addresses or go to another search engine.

Web monitoring tools are becoming more sophisticated so it is becoming clearer how much time individuals spend on each site. What advertisers want is for a person to say a few minutes rather than a few seconds. Recently, there has been growing evidence of how common the two second visit is, and advertisers are pushing back on ISPs to promote more substantive exchanges.

Another downside is the practice lessens service providers' credibility. When you see companies touting numbers like millions of subscribers each day or billons of visitors each month, do you really believe them? Many outsiders already think that policies, such as redirecting and chopping content up into multiple pages, artificially prop up vendors' numbers. Collapse seems inevitable for any business built on a shaky foundation.

The more significant problem is these policies frustrate users. They want information quickly and easily. Instead, they are often treated like mice trying to weave their way through mazes. This frustration often leads them to dumping one service and searching for a more efficient alternative. Rather than spending their time building artificial props, vendors, like Verizon, should be working to make users' Web experience simpler and more fulfilling. If they do that, they won't have to worry about a low number of hits on their sites.

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who has been writing about networking issues for two decades. His work has appeared in '"Business 2.0", "Entrepreneur", Investors Business Daily", "Newsweek" and "Information Week". He is based in Sudbury, Mass.

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