The Nation  [Printer-friendly version]
September 4, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Telecommunications giants are trying to take
control of the Internet to set up a two-tiered service -- a speedy,
spiffy internet for those who can pay high fees, and a slow,
unreliable internet for the rest of us. Our wonderful, democratic
electronic commons is about to be privatized.]

By John Nichols

Congress is about to return to Washington this week after taking a
long summer break for campaigning and before taking a long fall break
for campaigning.

During the brief period of governing that will be wedged into the
month of September, a lot of damage could be done -- particularly to
"The First Amendment of the Internet": the principle known as "Net

Net Neutrality, which has until now been the guiding principle that
preserves a free and open Internet, ensures that everyone who logs on
can access the content or run the applications and devices of every
site on the world wide web. The neutrality principle prevents
telephone and cable companies that provide internet service from
discriminating against content based on its source or ownership.

As the "Save the Internet" campaign [], a
broad coalition of groups fighting to maintain open access to all
sites on the web, explains: "Net Neutrality is the reason why the
Internet has driven economic innovation, democratic participation, and
free speech online. It's why the Internet has become an unrivaled
environment for open communications, civic involvement and free

Telecommunications firms salivate at the prospect of eliminating Net
Neutrality requirements and setting up systems where websites that pay
for the service will be more easily reached than sites that cannot
afford the toll. And U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who
has for many years been a dominant figure in communications debates on
Capitol Hill, is determined to change the rules so that Internet
gatekeepers such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner, can create
an "information superhighway" for those who pay and a dirt road for
those who fail to do so.

A sweeping overhaul of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that is
being promited by Stevens does not include Net Neutrality protections
and would effectively clear the way for the telecommunications giants
to colonize the Internet.

Stevens, the chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, wants
to see action on the measure before Congress breaks for the remainder
of the election season in early October. But rewriting the rules to
favor the telecommunications conglomerates may not be as easy this
year as it was in 1996. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has placed a hold on
the overhaul legislation and says he will not lift it until Net
Neutrality protections are written into the measure.

Activists across the country used the August break to urge senators
who had not taken a stand to line up in favor of net neutrality.
Rallies in late August targeted Congressional offices in 25 cities
nationwide, and they had an impact. A number of senators -- including
New York's Chuck Schumer, Minnesota's Mark Dayton, Iowa's Tom Harkin
and Vermont's Jim Jeffords -- pledged their support for net

But Stevens -- and too many of his allies in both parties -- remained
unmoved as September started.

As the return of Congress loomed, however, the Alaska senator took a
poke from the largest daily newspaper in his state, the Anchorage
Daily News, which bluntly declared in a September 4 editoral that:
"Net Neutrality is a good idea. Sen. Ted Stevens should support it."

"Sen. Stevens has said he doesn't see an immediate problem that
requires regulation. In other words, he's reluctant to have the
government set the playing rules until more companies are caught
cheating. Apparently he thinks competition can be counted on to
prevent any abuses," explained the editorial. "Only problem is, local
Internet service is not a fluid, totally free market with a lot of
competitors. Many markets are served by only one or two high-speed
Internet companies. Switching providers is not as easy as driving to
the next gas station or grocery store. Special expertise and special
equipment are required to switch. Many consumers may not even be
sophisticated enough to know when their Internet service is playing
favorites in sending content."

The Anchorage Daily News concluded that, "Net Neutrality is hardly a
heavy-handed government intrusion into the free-wheeling world of the
Internet. It is a simple antitrust rule that protects consumers by
keeping Internet companies from exploiting their control over
connections. Congress should get ahead of the curve and ensure net
neutrality before abuses begin to spread."

That's the right position. And it is summed up by a measure that the
Senate should pass before its members go out and ask Americans for
their votes this fall: The Internet Freedom Preservation Act.
Sponsored by Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and North Dakota Democrat
Byron Dorgan the act would provide meaningful protection for Net

While the machinations in the Senate this month are troubling, they
also provide a critical opening for the debate that America should be
having on media policy. No incumbent senator or candidate for a senate
seat should be allowed to make it to November without addressing the
issue of Net Neutrality and the broader question of whether media
policy in this country should serve a few telecommunications giants or
the the great mass of Americans and the great potential of American

Copyright 2006 The Nation