New York Times  [Printer-friendly version]
February 20, 2006

EDITORIAL: TOLLBOOTHS ON THE INTERNET HIGHWAY

When you use the Internet today, your browser glides from one Web site
to another, accessing all destinations with equal ease. That could
change dramatically, however, if Internet service providers are
allowed to tilt the playing field, giving preference to sites that pay
them extra and penalizing those that don't.

The Senate held hearings last week on "network neutrality," the
principle that I.S.P.'s -- the businesses like Verizon or Roadrunner
that deliver the Internet to your computer -- should not be able to
stack the deck in this way. If the Internet is to remain free, and
freely evolving, it is important that neutrality legislation be
passed.

In its current form, Internet service operates in the same
nondiscriminatory way as phone service. When someone calls your home,
the telephone company puts through the call without regard to who is
calling. In the same way, Internet service providers let Web sites
operated by eBay, CNN or any other company send information to you on
an equal footing. But perhaps not for long. It has occurred to the
service providers that the Web sites their users visit could be a rich
new revenue source. Why not charge eBay a fee for using the Internet
connection to conduct its commerce, or ask Google to pay when
customers download a video? A Verizon Communications executive
recently sent a scare through cyberspace when he said at a
telecommunications conference, as The Washington Post reported, that
Google "is enjoying a free lunch" that ought to be going to
providers like Verizon.

The solution, as far as the I.S.P.'s are concerned, could be what some
critics are calling "access tiering," different levels of access for
different sites, based on ability and willingness to pay. Giants like
Walmart.com could get very fast connections, while little-guy sites
might have to settle for the information superhighway equivalent of a
one-lane, pothole-strewn road. Since many companies that own I.S.P."s,
like Time Warner, are also in the business of selling online content,
they could give themselves an unfair advantage over their competition.

If access tiering takes hold, the Internet providers, rather than
consumers, could become the driving force in how the Internet evolves.
Those corporations' profit-driven choices, rather than users' choices,
would determine which sites and methodologies succeed and fail. They
also might be able to stifle promising innovations, like Internet
telephony, that compete with their own business interests.

Most Americans have little or no choice of broadband I.S.P."s, so they
would have few options if those providers shifted away from
neutrality. Congress should protect access to the Internet in its
current form. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, says he intends
to introduce an Internet neutrality bill, which would prohibit
I.S.P.'s from favoring content providers that paid them fees, or from
giving priority to their own content.

Some I.S.P.'s are phone and cable companies that make large campaign
contributions, and are used to getting their way in Washington. But
Americans feel strongly about an open and free Internet. Net
neutrality is an issue where the public interest can and should trump
the special interests.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company