Given the volume of the demands for network neutrality, especially in the context of Voice over the Internet Protocol (VoIP), there has been a surprising lack of coverage of a decision by the European Center for Nuclear Research, known by its French initials as CERN, to ban Skype from its network. CERN, as every ‘Net geek knows, invented the World Wide Web. Based in Geneva, this physics laboratory has done much to institutionalize the democratic and decentralized way the Internet operates. We are all better for it. So when CERN takes issue with Skype, whose disruptive business model and cyberpunkish founders elevated the company to the modern pantheon of Â¸bercool Internet start-ups, it gives pause. As reported by Bruno Giussani in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, CERN has deep reservations about the way Skype service usurps the processing resources of user PCs in the routing and switching of phone calls. Plus, CERN says Skype violates its own computing rules by bypassing firewall protections. CERN, Giussani reports, is not the only organization to ban Skype, but it certainly is the most visible and, in terms of ‘Net culture, the most significant and hardest to dismiss. CERN’s decision is a facet of the larger debate of network neutrality. Among the worries of the network neutrality set is that, if not enforced, carriers who control broadband access, namely the telephone and cable companies, may block or prevent access to VoIP services, like Skype. This was attempted only once (and not against Skype) by a small rural phone company, which was promptly chastised by the FCC and forced to stop. Yet CERN itself, by its own actions, suggest there may be legitimate reasons to block certain services out of concern for the affect they have on their own computers and network integrity. The Skype business model is built on the notion of using computers it does not own as “supernodes” to support the VoIP service it sells. “Not with our computers, you don’t!” CERN said. CERN, remember, is one of the “good guys.” That it chose to block Skype speaks volumes about the real debate behind network neutrality, which has little to do with blocking web sites and everything to do with whether conventions about open, cooperative Internet should change when parties wish to use them for private profit. Used to be that a “disruptive” Internet business model was just that Ã¢â?¬â?? it used the Internet to drive out costs, compress and globalize supply chains, and take advantage of open access and architecture. Today, it’s in danger of devolving into “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.” Skype makes money by hijacking computers. At first its founders thought its service would demand so little processing that it would hardly be noticed. They were wrong. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have made no secret that they aim to profit from hogging bandwidth owned by others, yet take umbrage at demands that they pay the cost of managing and partitioning this bandwidth. Let the record note that it was not AT&T, Comcast, Verizon or Cox Ã¢â?¬â?? those demons of the techie setÃ¢â?¬â??that were among the first to aggressively defend ownership of their corner of the World Wide Web, but CERN, the Web’s very creator.
Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.