European cell phone giant Vodafone is introducing a new content filter that could be used to block subscribers from using competitive phone services.
A Vodafone spokesman scoffs at such a notion. He said the new feature, and another content filter that the company has had in place for the last 18 months, are only to keep those underage from viewing illicit Web sites on their phones.
"We must act in a socially responsible way," the Vodafone spokesman said.
Blue Coat Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., is supplying Vodafone with the filtering features. A representative didnt immediately return a call seeking comment.
Consumer and business advocates fear that Vodafone and other network operators introducing content filters have more in mind than just meeting a social or moral mandate.
The argument seems loudest among companies that provide VOIP (voice over IP), which is a means of using the Internet to make a phone call, thus avoiding having to pay traditional phone companies anything.
VOIP is a big threat because of how much cheaper long distance and international calling rates are. The cut-rate prices are largely due to the efficiencies of using the Internet rather than the usual telephone technology created a century or so ago.
But VOIPers such as Skype, a division of eBay of San Jose, Calif., and Vonage Holdings of Holmdel, N.J. must rely on the good graces of some of their biggest competitors.
Thats because VOIP operators usually dont own a network, like Vodafone does. Rather, VOIP customers must provide their own Internet connection, which leaves them at the mercy of the network owners.
The argument at the heart of this issue is about who controls the Internet.
Network owners generally believe they should be able to control what goes over their pipes, by virtue of all the investment, time and financial risk.
They believe this will help them meet social and moral mandates, and allow them to better protect their business interests.
Critics of such thinking said this thinking contradicts the more Utopian ideal behind the Internet, which is to connect anyone at anytime from anywhere.
"I think this walled-garden approach that many network providers would like to create would fundamentally change the way the Internet works," Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said during a recent Net neutrality debate in Congress.