There's a fight underway over the future of the internet. Big telecom companies want to create two tiers of service - a fast tier for favored websites and services, and a slow tier for the rest of us. Activists on the other side are arguing instead for "net neutrality" -- an internet in which all data packets travel at the same high speed, and no one gets to buy their way to the front of the line.
As the blog Sandhill Trek puts it:
What would it be like to have a metered Internet, an Internet where every data packet that leaves your house is inspected before it is delivered to the end-point? The capability for metering is in place and the telcos are promoting it as a "Quality of Service" initiative. The argument is seductive. The sequence of packet delivery for audio and video is important. Why not prioritize them on an express track and put all the email spam over on a siding while the media content goes roaring through?
I'm afraid some babies will drown in that particular bath water. If we give the telcos and the cablecos gatekeeper privileges, if we allow packet inspection, then we will see services blocked. Why should SBC allow Skype or Vonage service through its pipes if it can block that service and require you to use the SBC voice services? Content will also be "managed." If the bandwidth providers can block your access to a website, if they can sideline the delivery of a message from your computer to my computer, then they will be limiting free speech in a terrible way.
Our own Senator Ron Wyden is leading the fight. His testimony last week before the Senate's Commerce Commitee:
Mr. Chairman, 10 years ago in this room a bipartisan group of Senators decided that while we had not invented the Internet we wanted to help it prosper.
Our bipartisan group determined that the Internet was being subjected to discriminatory taxation, and we wrote the Internet Tax Freedom Act, which really should have been called the Internet Nondiscrimination Act. The principle behind the bill was technological neutrality – you shouldn’t tax the online world differently that the off-line world.
The law has been a success, and in my view a significant catalyst for the Net’s growth.
Now there is another challenge facing the Net that also needs to be tackled in a bipartisan way. Powerful interests who own the pipes and access to the Internet are trying to break the Net. These special interests want to expand their control over Internet access to the limitless world of content, where consumers play online games, watch online tv and enjoy video. At present, consumers use the high speed access to the Net that they have paid for to visit whatever content they want, whenever they want without having to worry about having a cable company or a phone company interfering with their use of the Net.
Some of these cable and phone companies are trying to discriminate in the delivery of content. They are saying that instead of making available to everyone the same content at the same price, they want to set up sweetheart arrangements to play favorites.
This is a fundamental shift in the way the Internet works. Small start up companies and scores of others have been able to start small and dream big because every user has had equal access to all websites.
I want to keep it that way. I will shortly introduce legislation that will make sure all information is made available on the same terms so that no bit is better than another one. First, it will assure that information from a company like J. Crew is not treated worse than information from a company like LL Bean. Second, it will assure that a company like Comcast that offers Internet access does not give preferential treatment to its own information bits compared to information bits from another company, like Yahoo. Third, broadband service providers should not be able to create private networks that are superior to the Internet access they offer consumers generally. These principles would prevent Internet access providers from tipping the competitive advantage toward their own services, such as phone calls over the Internet (Voip) or television over the Internet.
Consumer groups and the technology community are four-square behind the notion that neutrality is the best policy when it comes to the Internet, and I will continue to work closely with them on this legislation. I also look forward to working with the members of this Committee to make sure there is no discrimination against consumers on the network.