What is this about?
This is about Internet freedom. "Network Neutrality" -- the First Amendment of the Internet -- ensures that the public can view the smallest blog just as easily as the largest corporate Web site by preventing Internet companies like AT&T from rigging the playing field for only the highest-paying sites.
But Internet providers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are spending millions of dollars lobbying Congress to gut Net Neutrality. If Congress doesn't take action now to implement meaningful network neutrality provisions, the future of the Internet is at risk.
What is network neutrality?
Network Neutrality - or "Net Neutrality" for short -- is the guiding principle that preserves the free and open Internet.
Net Neutrality ensures that all users can access the content or run the applications and devices of their choice. With Net Neutrality, the network's only job is to move data -- not choose which data to privilege with higher quality service.
Net Neutrality is the reason why the Internet has driven economic innovation, democratic participation, and free speech online. It's why the Internet has become an unrivaled environment for open communications, civic involvement and free speech.
Who wants to get rid of Net Neutrality?
The nation's largest telephone and cable companies -- including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner -- want to be Internet gatekeepers, deciding which Web sites go fast or slow and which won't load at all.
They want to tax content providers to guarantee speedy delivery of their data. They want to discriminate in favor of their own search engines, Internet phone services, and streaming video -- while slowing down or blocking their competitors.
These companies have a new vision for the Internet. Instead of an even playing field, they want to reserve express lanes for their own content and services -- or those from big corporations that can afford the steep tolls -- and leave the rest of us on a winding dirt road.
What's at stake?
Decisions being made now will shape the future of the Internet for a generation. Before long, all media -- TV, phone and the Web -- will come to your home via the same broadband connection. The dispute over Net Neutrality is about who'll control access to new and emerging technologies.
On the Internet, consumers are in ultimate control -- deciding between content, applications and services available anywhere, no matter who owns the network. There's no middleman. But without Net Neutrality, the Internet will look more like cable TV. Network owners will decide which channels, content and applications are available; consumers will have to choose from their menu.
The Internet has always been driven by innovation. Web sites and services succeeded or failed on their own merit. Without Net Neutrality, decisions now made collectively by millions of users will be made in corporate boardrooms. The choice we face now is whether we can choose the content and services we want, or whether the broadband barons will choose for us.
What's happening in Congress?
Congress is now considering a major overhaul of the Telecommunications Act. The telephone and cable companies are filling up congressional campaign coffers and hiring high-priced lobbyists. They've set up "Astroturf" groups like "Hands Off the Internet" to confuse the issue and give the appearance of grassroots support.
On June 8, the House of Representatives passed the "Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006," or COPE Act (H.R.5252) -- a bill that offers no meaningful protections for Net Neutrality. An amendment offered by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), which would have instituted real Net Neutrality requirements, was defeated by intense industry lobbying.
It now falls to the Senate to save the free and open Internet. Fortunately, Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Byron Dorgan (R-N.D.) have introduced a bipartisan measure, the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2006" (S. 2917), that would provide meaningful protection for Net Neutrality. This excellent bill may be introduced as an amendment when the Senate takes up its own rewrite of the Telecommunications Act later this summer. The next key hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled for June 20.
Call Congress today: No senator can in good conscience vote against Internet freedom and with the telecom cartel.
Isn't this just a battle between giant telcos and other corporations?
No. Small business owners benefit from an Internet that allows them to compete directly -- not one where they can't afford the price of entry. Net Neutrality ensures that innovators can start small and dream big about being the next EBay or Google without facing insurmountable hurdles. Without Net Neutrality, startups and entrepreneurs will be muscled out of the marketplace by big corporations that pay for a top spot on the Web.
But Net Neutrality doesn't just matter to business owners. If Congress turns the Internet over to the telephone and cable giants, everyone who uses the Internet will be affected. Connecting to your office could take longer if you don't purchase your carrier's preferred applications. Sending family photos and videos could slow to a crawl. Web pages you always use for online banking, access to health care information, planning a trip, or communicating with friends and family could fall victim to pay-for-speed schemes.
Independent voices and political groups are especially vulnerable. Costs will skyrocket to post and share video and audio clips, silencing bloggers and amplifying the big media companies. Political organizing could be slowed by the handful of dominant Internet providers who ask advocacy groups or candidates to pay a fee to join the "fast lane."
Isn't the threat to Net Neutrality just hypothetical?
No. So far, we've only seen the tip of the iceberg. But numerous examples show that without network neutrality requirements, Internet service providers will discriminate against content and competing services they don't like.
a.. In 2004, North Carolina ISP Madison River blocked their DSL customers from using any rival Web-based phone service.
b.. In 2005, Canada's telephone giant Telus blocked customers from visiting a Web site sympathetic to the Telecommunications Workers Union during a labor dispute.
c.. Shaw, a big Canadian cable TV company, is charging an extra $10 a month to subscribers in order to "enhance" competing Internet telephone services.
d.. In April, Time Warner's AOL blocked all emails that mentioned
This type of censorship will become the norm unless we act now. Given the chance, these gatekeepers will consistently put their own interests before the public good.
Won't more regulations harm the free Internet? Shouldn't we just let the market decide?
Writing Net Neutrality into law would preserve the freedoms we currently enjoy on the Internet. For all their talk about "deregulation," the cable and telephone giants don't want real competition. They want special rules written in their favor.
Either we make rules that ensure an even playing field for everyone, or we have rules that hold the Internet captive to the whims of a few big companies. The Internet has thrived because revolutionary ideas like blogs, Wikipedia or Google could start on a shoestring and attract huge audiences. Without Net Neutrality, the pipeline owners will choose the winners and losers on the Web.
And when the network owners start abusing their control of the pipes, there's nowhere else for consumers to turn. The cable and telephone companies already dominate 98 percent of the broadband market. Only 53 percent of Americans have a choice between cable and DSL at home. Everyone else has only one choice or no broadband options at all. That's not what a truly free market looks like.
Who's part of the SavetheInternet.com Coalition?
Who else supports Net Neutrality?
The supporters of Net Neutrality include leading high-tech companies such as Amazon.com, Earthlink, EBay, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Skype, Vonage and Yahoo. Prominent national figures such as Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig and FCC Commissioner Michael Copps have called for stronger Net Neutrality protections.
Editorial boards at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and Christian Science Monitor all have urged congress to save the Internet.
What can I do to help?
Call your representative today and demand that Net Neutrality be protected.
Encourage groups you're part of to please join the SavetheInternet.com Coalition.
Show your support for Internet freedom on your Web site or blog.
Tell your friends about this crucial issue before it's too late.[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Do you agree with all this, or do you find it just a bit shrill? There are several additional essays in the collection presented here today, please continue reading. PAT]