April 26, 2006
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Every once in a while Congress will try to slip a corrupt bill right past us. Sometimes it's a big thing of recognizable nature, sometimes it's hidden deep within a huge 1000-page bill forced into vote hours after it's first introduced. But more often than not, it's something that we just don't recognize initially as being bad, and that's what we have this time.
Three months ago, I wrote on a story Josh Marshall pointed out, about how the big Telecoms were fighting with consumer groups and a host of companies selling goods over the Internet over how the Internet should be run. The consumer groups and vendors were trying to preserve something called "Network Neutrality," which says that every web site is equal to every other web site as far as communication lines go; no one web site should be given priority over others. The Telecoms, on the other hand, were trying to change things so they could give priority for telephone line usage, giving fast lanes of communication to those who paid a premium, and crappy quality to those who did not. The Telecoms tried to make the case that right now, Google and others are using their "pipes" for free--which is unadulterated crap, of course. Everyone pays for using telephone cables and Internet communication pipelines, the Telecoms now simply want to gouge for more. It's as if the Telecoms suddenly wanted to charge you extra on your telephone bill for the quality of your phone service: if you pay AT&T an extra $20 a month, they'll give you crisp, clear service; if not, then you'll get crappy connections and your calls may be arbitrarily cut off, even though you're already paying AT&T for what should be acceptable quality.
Well, guess who won the lobbying battle? Yep, that's right, the Telecoms did. Now, three months later, the Congresspeople who are supposed to be serving you are once again selling your interests out to the highest bidder, once again taking bribes from corporations to pass laws which favor those corporations over you.
The new law will essentially hand over control of the Internet pathways to the Telecoms to use at their will. How will this affect you? First of all, it means that prices will go up without any increase in quality. The Telecoms will be charging more even though they are creating no new services--they will simply be charging more for favoritism. For example, Amazon.com will have to pay a great deal more to ensure that visitors to their site don't get so bogged down in slow connections that their customers will give up and leave. That means Amazon would have to start charging you more for stuff you buy so they could pay off the Telecoms for the new extortion preferred connection.
Sites that are unwilling or unable to pay the "premium" would become slow and sluggish, especially sites which do not sell anything (like blogs) but have very high readership. Sites which you now take for granted as free resources would probably have to switch to paid membership, perhaps offering you a choice between free and slow, and paid and fast. Overall, your free Internet surfing would definitely be slowed down and made less accessible in general.
The fees could eventually be extended to hit you directly, forcing you to pay an extra surcharge for uploading photos to your web site, even though you already pay a premium for your faster broadband connection.
It also means that the Telecoms could shut off anyone they desired. Network Neutrality does not exist in Canada, where their Telecoms have the control American ones are trying to get, and they have already abused it to their private advantage, blocking access to a web site run by the Telecom's worker's union. The Telecoms gaining that power in the U.S. would have a far greater impact, as U.S. sites are far more central to the global usage of the Internet.
At the core of this issue is the decentralized and open, public nature of the Internet. Up until now, the Internet has remained largely neutral, mostly a free, public resource without a central controlling authority. Kind of like a free market, an open port. This is one of the greatest reasons why the Internet has been so successful, and how the Internet has helped the American and international economies as much as it has in recent years. Giving this control to the Telecoms is antithetical to the nature of the Internet, essentially taking a multi-trillion-dollar public resource and handing ownership over to the Telecoms without them paying a cent for the cash cow they claim is theirs to take.
The House committee which now controls the bill is leaning heavily toward giving the Telecoms what they want, though enough members are still undecided that the bill could be killed while still at this stage. Various attempts by members in favor of Network Neutrality to maintain that system have tried to implement changes to protect free use of the Internet, but so far have been shot down.
What can be done? Well, one web site has gone up giving news on the issue, with a page showing a map of the country displaying which members of the Commerce Committee have voted for or against the bill, and who has not yet made it clear where they stand, along with contact information for those representatives; you can find the representative in your area, if yours is on the committee, and give their offices a call to tell them how you feel.