Remember Internet Consumers

The little guys lost twice in Supreme Court decisions involving technology last week, but in both instances the rulings hardly represent the end of online battles.

The case that has attracted the most attention is also the most straightforward. At issue is whether Internet file-sharing companies can be held responsible if they encourage users to trade copyrighted music and videos without paying for the materials.

Some attacked the unanimous decision, charging that the threat of legal action would stifle needed innovation even as it allowed major studios to cling to obsolete business practices. But the growing presence of firms that offer legal download options undermines that argument and ignores a more important one: the ubiquity of file-swapping itself threatens innovation by denying artists their due.

The second decision involved whether cable companies must allow competing Internet providers to use their networks to offer high-speed service. Voting 6-3, the majority punted, saying that such decisions are the purview of the Federal Communications Commission.

But the FCC already has ruled that cable systems are distinct from telecommunications companies, and thus do not have to offer equal access to lines. In a sharp dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia accused his colleagues of making false distinctions between the services - and worse, shirking the court's obligations.

The cable companies cheered, and the telecoms made noise about wanting similar provisions. Congress -- which writes the laws on which the FCC is supposed to issue regulations -- should be braced for lobbying of unprecedented intensity and expense.

As quixotic as it may sound, we urge members of Ohio's delegation to remember consumers in this process. The value of the Internet is inherent in the universal opportunities it allows; if services are narrowly controlled, huge opportunities for abuse exist.

As several critics argued after the opinion, if a single company controls high-speed Internet in a community, it could deny -- or at the very least slow down -- users' access to items the system's owners oppose. Just consider the frightening implications for companies competing to offer specific downloads, or political candidates seeking to spread their platforms. Citizens win in free and robust exchanges; it is crucial that Congress allow them to flourish.

Copyright 2005

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