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JUNE 26, 2006

Open Net

Imagine you were choosing whether to buy a book from Amazon.com or
Barnes and Noble's website, and you knew that Amazon's site would
load much faster, allowing you to scan books and sample their
content much more easily. Or imagine that Fox.com's streaming video
came up instantly and CNN.com's balked. Or that whitehouse.gov
loaded quickly while the site of a contentious political magazine
was plagued by delays. That is what your Internet experience could
be like if Congress doesn't requirethe big cable and telephone companies that control access to the Web
to observe what is called "net neutrality."

Under the original rules put in place in 1934, telecommunications
companies can't give preferential treatment to one set of outgoing
calls over another by, say, offering static-free calling to one
company's telemarketers but not another's. The same rules initially
applied to the Internet. Telecom companies couldn't charge website
proprietors to have their content sent to consumers more
expeditiously. But, last August, George W. Bush's Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) exempted telecoms that provide
Internet connections from these restrictions, dealing a blow to
both entrepreneurship and political discourse.

Content providers from Google and Amazon to Daily Kos and TNR Online
currently pay Web-hosting companies to put their content on the
Internet. Consumers then access that content via Internet service
providers, such as Comcast and Verizon. Under the new FCC
guidelines, those companies will be able to charge content
providers a fee to deliver their content to consumers and, in
particular, an additional surcharge to deliver their content to
consumers more quickly--that is, they will be able to create a
faster toll lane on the information superhighway. If they want, the
telecoms can favor their own services and penalize competitors--for
instance, voice over Internet protocol companies like Vonage--by
denying them faster service. They can even charge lucrative fees to
companies for exclusive access to the fast lane at the expense of
their competitors, giving, for example, L.L. Bean an advantage over
Lands' End. And, by making the fast lane prohibitively expensive,
they can force start-up ventures and noncommercial providers (like
blogs) onto the bumpy dirt roads of the Internet.

Net neutrality would prohibit all of this. Telecoms could make money
the way they always have--by charging homes and businesses for an
Internet connection-- but they couldn't make money from the content
providers themselves. That is a perfectly reasonable proposition,
and it has won support from Amazon and eBay, as well as the
Christian Coalition and MoveOn.org. But the big cable and phone
companies, backed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Grover
Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, and a host of well-heeled
lobbyists--including former Clinton Press Secretary Mike
McCurry--have adamantly resisted net neutrality. Last week, they
defeated a House measure, sponsored by Representative Ed Markey, to
bar discrimination on the Internet. The battle now moves to the
Senate, where Olympia Snowe and Byron Dorgan are putting forward a
similar proposal.

Opponents of net neutrality claim that telecoms need the extra money
from surcharges and exclusive deals to fund new investments in
cable and DSL. But the companies can still make money by charging
homes and businesses higher fees for faster or more dependable
services. Opponents also claim that, if consumers don't like what
they are getting from one Internet service provider, they can
simply switch. "If one broadband provider slowed access to fringe
bloggers," The Washington Post opined, "the provider would lose
customers." But, with the industry dominated by a handful of
companies, the typical American has a choice of only two providers.
And changing services often means losing an e-mail address and
facing new connection charges.

Most important, as Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig has
argued, the Internet is not only a tool for economic growth, it is
also a public commons for the exchange of ideas. It is where
Americans can not only search for the best deal on a new digital
camera, but also debate the country's future. Unlike the telephone,
it is a medium in which thousands, even millions, of people can
participate in the same discussion at the same time. Unlike
television, it is interactive. But it can't function optimally if
content is prioritized or filtered by telecom companies. Allowing
companies to levy a toll on information providers is not just a
blow to consumer choice--it's a blow to democracy.

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