Chaining competition on the Internet

OUR GENERATION has unprecedented access to online information. We grew up ina time when the Internet seemed to get better every year, as dial-up e-mail providers gave way to broadband and the unlimited possibility of the World Wide Web. On a wired campus, it's easy to take this access for granted, to expect that our favorite websites will always be there. But corporate service providers are working to undermine the Internet as we know it, and the United States Congress is about to let them.

Currently, the Internet operates on the principle of "network neutrality," which means that service providers don't discriminate when they transmit content to users. Because of network neutrality, whitehouse.gov and anarchy.org reach users with equal reliability and speed. You control the content that you see, not your service provider.

But the Internet could change dramatically if broadband companies like Verizon and AT&T are permitted to abandon network neutrality in favor of schemes that will increase their profit margins at the expense of free speech. These companies want to discriminate in favor of their corporate interests, directing users to their content and blocking the content of competitors. If this happens, independent start-up companies could lose access to potential customers, guaranteeing the continued supremacy of the largest corporations.

In addition to blocking their own competition, service providers want to make money by charging other companies for fast access to their customers. Companies who could afford to pay broadband providers would reach consumers at normal speeds, while other sites would be obnoxiously slow or unusable.

This scheme has been proposed publicly by William L. Smith, the chief technology officer of BellSouth Corp, who told The Washington Post that he wants a "pay-for-performance marketplace" where his company can speed up the online services of companies that have paid, and slow down every other website. The CEO of Verizon, Ivan Seidenberg, has also acknowledged that he wants companies like Google to pay for fast transmission on the Verizon network.

Broadband companies have been intensely lobbying Congress for the freedom to implement these schemes. Congress is currently re-writing the Telecommunications Act under the moronically named "Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006" -- and the final legislation could be the end of the internet as we know it. 

If broadband providers are permitted to ditch network neutrality in favor of these profit schemes, consumers will see much of their service slow down while prices remain the same. Worse, "pay-for-performance" policies will severely disadvantage groups who can't pay: small businesses, independent political, and nonprofit activist groups who depend on the internet to reach supporters.

In this age of corporate media monopoly, the internet has been the one public forum that remains open to uncensored debate. Groups that lack a voice in the mass media have used the Internet to organize and to offer their message to a potential audience of millions. In this sense, the internet represents one of the few remaining threats to corporate domination, and the corporations' desire to gain control is understandable. Their job is to maximize their profits, and we can't expect them to show restraint out of respect for American democracy. That's why must need the U.S. Congress to protect democracy from the excesses of corporate greed. (Oh God, we're screwed.)

As they debate the COPE Act, members of Congress need to hear outrage from the American public. They need to hear from us as citizens who will not accept corporate control of our online content, and they also need to hear from the academic community. American universities have a tremendous stake in the outcome of this legislation. Network neutrality is essential for the free exchange of ideas, and while it's hard to imagine corporate control of online content, the danger is very real. In February, Google was scolded in congressional hearings for agreeing to censor its content in China. We like to criticize Chinese censorship because we're proud that in America, the government can't control what we read and write online. Yet if the Telecommunications Act gets re-written in favor of broadband companies, the government won't need to censor the internet. Broadband corporations will be happy to censor it on their own, and Americans will be the ones to lose -- as consumers and as citizens. 

Cari Lynn Hennessy's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at chennessey@cavalierdaily.com.

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