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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.

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?

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