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Net Neutrality and the Coming Fight For Internet Freedom

If you think open nondiscriminatory access to the Internet is what makes the Web special, you had better get ready to fight for it...
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If you think open nondiscriminatory access to the Internet is what makes the Web special, you had better get ready to fight for it, because Congress is toying with a new paradigm that could close the Web down to many of tomorrow's innovators.

Ever since the Internet was first opened to commercial use in the early 1990's, it has been defined by its open exchange of ideas - an exchange that has fostered tremendous innovation and economic growth. Tens of millions of Internet users in our country - and billions of dollars in economic innovation - like our current system of open networks the way it is. But if the new telecommunications bill [pdf] that is making its way through Congress passes, this innovation-friendly and open network will be replaced with one defined by new tolls and bottlenecks. We cannot let that happen.

The Internet has historically been protected by rules which embodied a policy of "network neutrality." In other words, telephone companies such as AT&T or Verizon could not discriminate against unaffiliated content providers on the Net, but rather had to stay neutral with regard to the content flowing through their networks. Moreover, the phone companies could not charge access fees to certain companies in exchange for faster content distribution to high bandwidth customers or to provide enhanced quality of service assurances. In addition, these rules protected consumer freedom to use their choice of gadgets with their broadband connection, from computer modems and VOIP phones, to wi-fi routers and other whiz-bang gizmos just over the horizon.

Yet these historic rules which protected the Internet were thrown out by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last August. As a result, the phone companies are now legally permitted to tinker with the nondiscriminatory nature of the Internet and to charge new bottleneck taxes on web-based businesses. It did not take long for the phone companies to react. We know from the public statements of industry executives, such as AT&T's Ed Whitacre, that they see abandoning net neutrality as simply another way to squeeze out a few extra dollars in revenue:

[I]n a Nov. 7 interview with BusinessWeek Online, AT&T CEO Edward Whitacre Jr. declared: "What [Google, Vonage, and others] would like to do is to use my pipes free. But I ain't going to let them do that." Whitacre and AT&T argue that they need flexibility to exact a toll from Web services that hog bandwidth.

In short, the Ed Whitacres of the world want to start charging web-based businesses and entrepreneurs for the right to unduly prioritize how information is transmitted over the Internet (and don't forget that they already charge users for Internet access; this would simply allow them to make money on both ends of the exchange). Equal access to information and all users has been a fundamental principle of the Internet since its inception. Yet the prospect now looms that the "World Wide Web" could instead become "What Whitacre Wants" - a broadband bastion for the corporate whims of bottleneck providers. This would jeopardize the Internet's role as the engine of economic growth, innovation, and job creation which it is today. These big telecom companies had nothing to do with creating the Internet and making it such a special, open platform for innovation, yet now they're acting like they own it, just because they think they can. But we must stop their effort before it is too late.

The Joe Barton (R-TX) sponsored telecommunications bill that is moving through the Energy & Commerce Committee in the House would fundamentally change the way the Internet works. Typically, Congress gives the FCC the power to promulgate rules to enforce, yet under the Barton bill the FCC is handcuffed and explicitly told it has no power to restore rules to protect the Internet. Instead, the bill merely permits the FCC to enforce imprecise, broadly-worded "principles" of net neutrality - principles that, as written, completely ignore the principle of nondiscrimination. In short, the Barton bill opens the door for the Bells and other ISPs to throw out a key principle of net neutrality and enact a new era of telecom taxes and tolls, roadblocks that would shut down the avenues of innovation that have allowed the Internet to become what it is today.

What would be some of the consequences of discarding the principle of net neutrality? For one, startup firms will be forced to compete at a disadvantage against major content providers who are paying massive sums to the phone companies for prioritized content delivery. Would Google have become the company it is today if its search engine worked slower than its competitors, not because the technology was less effective, but simply because they couldn't afford to pay the toll? Would Wikipedia have earned its current prominence if it had to compete against a commercial alternative with inferior content, but that users could access faster? Would eBay have achieved its current popularity if users could not be sure they could access the site as a bid was coming to a close, simply because eBay hadn't paid its monthly "quality of service" fee to AT&T? Will any future Googles, Yahoos, Amazons, or eBays even have the opportunity to innovate their way to success if they are forced to compete with existing companies who are free to favor their own content, simply because they own the pipes into consumer homes and businesses?

And what will happen to the Internet as a vehicle for expressing our First Amendment freedoms? Certainly religious organizations, non-profits, civic organizations, or ordinary citizens cannot or will not pay the excessive new bottleneck taxes the broadband barons want to charge.

Last week, the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet voted down an amendment I offered [pdf] that would set specific rules to protect the principle of net neutrality. This vote should open the eyes of every single American who uses the Internet. It is time for the thousands of Internet-based businesses and millions of citizens to make themselves heard - it is now up to the Internet community to rise up to help save the Internet itself.

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