Catholic Bishops Concerned About no Safeguards on Web Access

Catholic bishops among concerned about no safeguards for equal Web access in new telecom bills

By Mark Pattison Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) In the era of regulated utilities, residents and businesses alike knew what the charges would be for electricity, natural gas and telephone service.

With an unregulated Internet, though, individuals seeking Internet content and businesses and organizations hoping that users will click on their sites may wind up paying huge fees to Internet service providers before much longer.

Current telecommunications bills working their way through Congress have no safeguards for "net neutrality," which allows any user equal access to any Web site.

Net neutrality short for 'network neutrality' is the policy of keeping the Internet open to all lawful traffic by requiring that cable and telephone companies operate their Internet networks in a nondiscriminatory manner. It bars those companies from prioritizing Internet traffic to benefit their own content.

With no safeguards for net neutrality, religious groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, fear that Internet service providers will discriminate against them and charge them if they want to get the same level and speed of service they now receive for their online sites when someone types in their Web address.

Since the Federal Communications Commission deregulated the broadcast airwaves about 20 years ago, the amount of religious content on those airwaves has shrunk dramatically as radio and television broadcasters have used the time once set aside for "public service" programming -- including televised Masses -- for profit-making endeavors, including infomercials.

The fear is that recent FCC actions allowing large phone companies to offer Internet services in a deregulated environment will have the same effect on religious content on the Web.

If the Internet evolves into a "pay-to-play" situation, religious and other noncommercial Web sites would have to pay fees to have their Web sites open to users as easily as those of large commercial entities ? if they could afford to pay such fees.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said he would try to get a telecommunications bill passed when Congress reconvenes after the November elections for a "lame duck" session. The Senate version of the bill currently has no provision mandating net neutrality. He told National Journal's Technology Daily that the net neutrality issue was "destroying this bill."

He added, "No one can tell me what net neutrality is other than something that a few big companies want," adding that if the bill fails over this issue "the people who blocked it will pay a terrible (political) price."

The man credited with being the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, told The New York Times in a telephone interview that net neutrality deserves to be protected.

"Net neutrality is one of those principles, social principles, certainly now much more than a technical principle, which is very fundamental," he said. "The neutrality of the Net is a medium essential for democracy, yes if there is democracy and the way people inform themselves is to go onto the Web."

A group called Save the Internet says on its Web site it has collected the names of nearly 1.15 million people who want net neutrality preserved. The organization also says its coalition has 783 organizations, including the Christian Coalition of America, the Interfaith Center for Social Justice, the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ, and Spirit Restoration Ministries. Also allied with the coalition are nonprofit organizations, small businesses, Internet service providers and individual Web sites.

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