Issue 102, Summer 2006

"Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one" – so said writer and critic A.J. Liebling. Now it appears the same dictum may ring true for the Internet, as Congress faces competing pressure from the telecom industry and free speech activists over the future of network neutrality.

Often called "the Internet’s First Amendment," net neutrality stands for the principle that those who own the infrastructure of the Web cannot discriminate between content. But last year, rule changes at the FCC essentially stripped the government of its longstanding role in enforcing net neutrality.

In recent months, Congress has been overhauling the Telecom Act. AT&T, BellSouth, Comcast, and Verizon – who collectively own 98% of the "pipes" over which Web content travels to you – have aggressively lobbied for permission to charge content providers for preferential treatment. In other words, you already pay for access to the Web; now the sites you browse may face a bidding war if they want their content to reach you as fast as their competitors’. Professor Robert McChesney points out, “They’re basically using their political leverage to change the law so they get a huge new revenue stream. It gives them an inordinate amount of power over the Internet." Some warn these changes could divide the "information superhighway" into one fast lane (with plenty of toll booths) and a dirt road for those who cannot "pay to play." But while the profit motive is a major factor, far more than money is potentially at stake.

A Web without net neutrality would be vulnerable to content manipulation. This occurred in Canada, where telecom industry giant Telus blocked access to a site sympathetic to its workers’ concerns during a labor dispute. In a worst case scenario, companies might favor high-paying customers by blocking access to content they find objectionable, such as the sites of whistleblowers, activists, or political opponents. The Save the Internet campaign has united unlikely collaborators like the ACLU and Christian Coalition to press for legislation that will restore enforceable net neutrality protections.

The telecom companies have fought back, claiming that net neutrality is an unnecessary form of government interference and "a solution in search of a problem." They have spent millions on lobbying, and even launched a counter-campaign called “Hands Off the Internet” that mimics the appearance of a grassroots site. Consumer advocates and media critics roundly denounce the effort as misleading.

Still, despite the resemblance to a David and Goliath story line, a number of economic and technological subtleties make a quick fix elusive. Experts warn that legislation to safeguard net neutrality must be carefully worded, lest it open loopholes for other, unanticipated abuses. Though generally wary of regulatory action, First Amendment advocates can stand confidently behind government intervention when it seeks to guarantee equal, open access to information, as net neutrality would do.

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