I have blogged on numerous occasions about the issue of “Net Neutrality.” The debate has started and it appears the vote in the House will take place this Friday. The Washington Post has an excellent article by Lawrence Lessing and Robert W. McChesney that explains just what is at stake.
Congress is about to cast a historic vote on the future of the Internet. It will decide whether the Internet remains a free and open technology fostering innovation, economic growth and democratic communication, or instead becomes the property of cable and phone companies that can put toll booths at every on-ramp and exit on the information superhighway.
Net neutrality means simply that all like Internet content must be treated alike and move at the same speed over the network. The owners of the Internet’s wires cannot discriminate. This is the simple but brilliant “end-to-end” design of the Internet that has made it such a powerful force for economic and social good: All of the intelligence and control is held by producers and users, not the networks that connect them.
This was the case until the FCC, under the leadership of Michael Powell, eliminated the rules that kept cable and phone companies from discriminating against content providers.
Now Congress faces a legislative decision. Will we reinstate net neutrality and keep the Internet free? Or will we let it die at the hands of network owners itching to become content gatekeepers? The implications of permanently losing network neutrality could not be more serious. The current legislation, backed by companies such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, would allow the firms to create different tiers of online service. They would be able to sell access to the express lane to deep-pocketed corporations and relegate everyone else to the digital equivalent of a winding dirt road. Worse still, these gatekeepers would determine who gets premium treatment and who doesn’t.
Their idea is to stand between the content provider and the consumer, demanding a toll to guarantee quality delivery. It’s what Timothy Wu, an Internet policy expert at Columbia University, calls “the Tony Soprano business model”: By extorting protection money from every Web site — from the smallest blogger to Google — network owners would earn huge profits. Meanwhile, they could slow or even block the Web sites and services of their competitors or those who refuse to pay up. They’d like Congress to “trust them” to behave.
Congress is deciding on the fate of the Internet. The question before it is simple: Should the Internet be handed over to the handful of cable and telephone companies that control online access for 98 percent of the broadband market? Only a Congress besieged by high-priced telecom lobbyists and stuffed with campaign contributions could possibly even consider such an absurd act.
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