from the March 24, 2006 edition -
Whose Internet is it, anyway?
The Monitor's View
The hot debate over "Net neutrality" has spilled beyond Internet chat
rooms and into Congress. The concept that those who own the "pipes"
can't dictate what goes through them has made the Internet an engine
for individual and economic growth. An Internet with gatekeepers
threatens the Net's creative soul.
A group of 70 organizations has sent a letter to Congress urging that
it pass "meaningful and enforceable" Internet neutrality
legislation. Among them are citizen groups, such as the Consumer
Federation of America and the AARP, as well as the stars of the
21st-century Internet-based economy: Google, Microsoft, eBay, TiVo,
Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon has introduced legislation that would ban
Internet service providers from setting up special "fast lane"
higher-priced services or from blocking, degrading, altering,
modifying, or changing the Internet traffic they handle.
Opposing them are big providers such as AT&T and Verizon. They'd like
to charge extra to those who don't want to have their Internet traffic
caught in the slow lane, as well as use that fast lane for products
they create and own.
What's the harm in that? Google surely has the cash to pay extra for
premium service. But could Google, a tiny startup only a few years
ago, have sprung up in an environment where the established search
engines of the day could pay more to buy premium service? YouTube is a
fledgling online company that already transmits some 30 million videos
per day and is attracting attention. Would it get fair treatment if
big TV and movie corporations can pay to have their video get special
Internet-based phone companies like Vonage and Skype have
revolutionized the phone industry by offering calls over the Web at
low cost. But AT&T and Verizon eventually saw what they were doing and
jumped in to offer those services, too. What's to keep them from
giving these little guys poor connections and expediting their own
products on the fast lane?
"Net neutrality" simply means that data -- a phone call, an e-mail, a
video -- can travel freely over the Internet without the interference
of those who own parts of the pipeline. Those transmitting it
shouldn't discriminate as long as the content is legal and doesn't
damage the system.
The phone companies argue that competition between carriers will
prevent abuses. If customers feel unfairly treated by one provider,
they can switch to another.
But no such competition exists. A handful of cable TV and phone
companies control the lion's share of US broadband Internet
access. Many consumers have no choice among broadband providers. The
acquisition of Bell South by AT&T, now under way, shows that
competition is shrinking, not expanding.
If Congress fails to act, the only hope may be that neutrality
advocates can open up a "third pipe" to homes, even if only in some
key markets. That might create just enough competition to keep the
cable-phone duopoly honest. That third pipe might be a municipal
wireless (WiFi) network, another wireless system, or some future
Pipeline owners shouldn't choose winners and losers in the online
marketplace. Tollbooths and gates are the last thing the Net needs.
http://www.csmonitor.com | Copyright 2006 The Christian Science Monitor.