[NetBehaviour] US: Tollbooths on the Internet Highway

marc marc.garrett at furtherfield.org
Tue Feb 28 15:06:52 CET 2006

US: Tollbooths on the Internet Highway

February 20th, 2006
by Editorial, The New York Times


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 

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