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Lawrence Lessig and Robert W. McChesney, "No Tolls on The Internet"

No Tolls on The Internet

Lawrence Lessig and Robert W. McChesney

Congress is about to cast a historic vote on the future of the Internet.
It will decide whether the Internet remains a free and open technology
fostering innovation, economic growth and democratic communication, or
instead becomes the property of cable and phone companies that can put
toll booths at every on-ramp and exit on the information superhighway.

At the center of the debate is the most important public policy you've
probably never heard of: "network neutrality." Net neutrality means
simply that all like Internet content must be treated alike and move at
the same speed over the network. The owners of the Internet's wires
cannot discriminate. This is the simple but brilliant "end-to-end"
design of the Internet that has made it such a powerful force for
economic and social good: All of the intelligence and control is held by
producers and users, not the networks that connect them.
The protections that guaranteed network neutrality have been law since
the birth of the Internet — right up until last year, when the Federal
Communications Commission eliminated the rules that kept cable and phone
companies from discriminating against content providers. This triggered
a wave of announcements from phone company chief executives that they
plan to do exactly that.

Now Congress faces a legislative decision. Will we reinstate net
neutrality and keep the Internet free? Or will we let it die at the
hands of network owners itching to become content gatekeepers? The
implications of permanently losing network neutrality could not be more
serious. The current legislation, backed by companies such as AT&T,
Verizon and Comcast, would allow the firms to create different tiers of
online service. They would be able to sell access to the express lane to
deep-pocketed corporations and relegate everyone else to the digital
equivalent of a winding dirt road. Worse still, these gatekeepers would
determine who gets premium treatment and who doesn't.

Their idea is to stand between the content provider and the consumer,
demanding a toll to guarantee quality delivery. It's what Timothy Wu, an
Internet policy expert at Columbia University, calls "the Tony Soprano
business model": By extorting protection money from every Web site —
from the smallest blogger to Google — network owners would earn huge
profits. Meanwhile, they could slow or even block the Web sites and
services of their competitors or those who refuse to pay up. They'd like
Congress to "trust them" to behave.

Without net neutrality, the Internet would start to look like cable TV.
A handful of massive companies would control access and distribution of
content, deciding what you get to see and how much it costs. Major
industries such as health care, finance, retailing and gambling would
face huge tariffs for fast, secure Internet use — all subject to
discriminatory and exclusive dealmaking with telephone and cable giants.

We would lose the opportunity to vastly expand access and distribution
of independent news and community information through broadband
television. More than 60 percent of Web content is created by regular
people, not corporations. How will this innovation and production thrive
if creators must seek permission from a cartel of network owners?

The smell of windfall profits is in the air in Washington. The phone
companies are pulling out all the stops to legislate themselves monopoly
power. They're spending tens of millions of dollars on
inside-the-Beltway print, radio and TV ads; high-priced lobbyists;
coin-operated think tanks; and sham "Astroturf" groups — fake
grass-roots operations with such Orwellian names as Hands Off the
Internet and NetCompetition.org.

They're opposed by a real grass-roots coalition of more than 700 groups,
5,000 bloggers and 750,000 individual Americans who have rallied in
support of net neutrality at savetheinternet.com . The
coalition is left and right, commercial and noncommercial, public and
private. Supporters include the Christian Coalition of America,
MoveOn.org, National Religious Broadcasters, the Service Employees
International Union, the American Library Association, AARP and nearly
every consumer group. It includes the founders of the Internet, the
brand names of Silicon Valley, and a bloc of retailers, innovators and
entrepreneurs. Coalitions of such breadth, depth and purpose are rare in
contemporary politics.

Most of the great innovators in the history of the Internet started out
in their garages with great ideas and little capital. This is no
accident. Network neutrality protections minimized control by the
network owners, maximized competition and invited outsiders in to
innovate. Net neutrality guaranteed a free and competitive market for
Internet content. The benefits are extraordinary and undeniable.

Congress is deciding on the fate of the Internet. The question before it
is simple: Should the Internet be handed over to the handful of cable
and telephone companies that control online access for 98 percent of the
broadband market? Only a Congress besieged by high-priced telecom
lobbyists and stuffed with campaign contributions could possibly even
consider such an absurd act.

People are waking up to what's at stake, and their voices are growing
louder by the day. As millions of citizens learn the facts, the message
to Congress is clear: Save the Internet.

[Lawrence Lessig is a law professor at Stanford University and founder of
the Center for Internet and Society. Robert W. McChesney is a
communications professor at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign and co-founder of the media reform group Free Press.]