Whose Internet is it, anyway?

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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, and Yahoo.

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.

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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 service?

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 technology.

Pipeline owners shouldn't choose winners and losers in the online marketplace. Tollbooths and gates are the last thing the Net needs.

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