It was 1996, almost exactly a decade ago, when I wrote a column for this publication posing some questions about the future of the Internet.
In that column, I raised these questions:
"Should the proposed digital information superhighway be exclusively a toll road or should it be a freeway for essential information to the public? Should any individual or small organization who wants to produce a video program and distribute it directly to viewers have unfettered access to the entire superhighway at a reasonable cost?
Should the guarantee of universal service-just as we have today with our telephone system-be applied to the information superhighway? Should the media conglomerates who are building and will operate the superhighway be allowed to control the programming delivered over it?
Since the information superhighway will affect how we work as much as how we play, what policies are needed to ensure that every citizen has fair access to the technology? How do we avoid creating a new class structure split between information 'haves' and 'have nots?'"
There was a lot of talk in the 1990s about putting "toll booths" on the Internet. There still is. Only our buzz words have changed. Even Al Gore no longer calls it the "information superhighway," and the question of inequality is now described in new lingo called "net neutrality."
It's hard to believe that what was an issue in the 1992 presidential campaign is still an issue as we approach the Congressional campaigns of 2006. Sadly, at least in the aftermath of the recent debate over the issue in Congress, we've made little progress.
Election year gridlock might just save us from still another bad telecommunications bill-one so larded with corporate favoritism that it practically ignores the grassroots history of the people's network.
How bad is it? Focus on the hapless chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Ted Stevens, in attempting to explain why he didn't vote to break an 11-11 tie on an amendment to establish net neutrality.
THE TUBE SPEECH
These words are from the man attempting to shepherd complex new telecom legislation through the U.S. Senate: "They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes," Stevens, the Alaska Republican, explained.
"And if you don't understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and its going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material."
It's just Stevens's way of siding with the companies who are building new high-capacity networks and giving them the right to charge select customers extra fees for the increased capacity. Like we used to say, it's akin to installing a toll booth on the high speed lanes of the info superhighway.
Net neutrality is a movement that would prohibit "pay for speed" Internet pricing, thus allowing those who pay to have better connections than those who don't. It goes back to whether the Internet should remain a democratic, equitable communications infrastructure where no entity has a unique advantage.
Public Knowledge, the digital advocacy group, says failure to implement net neutrality will give the telephone and cable companies something they have not had in the history of the Internet-a way to control what goes over the 'Net.
"They would be free to discriminate in favor of content in which they have a financial interest or in favor of those companies which can afford special new fees the companies charge," the group said in a recent statement. "Under this regime, the telephone and cable companies would have no incentive to make any improvements to today's Internet, on which consumers, innovators and small businesses depend."
Because of the rapid migration of entertainment television to the broadband sphere over the past year, net neutrality is emerging as the next generation media ownership crusade. Where in 2002 media ownership concentrated on control of television stations and newspapers, the new focus has shifted to broadband network delivery.
Part of the problem underlying this entire debate is the vague way in which the various parties define the Internet. On one side, we have the public Internet and then there are private fiber IPTV networks such as the one being built by AT&T. The distinctions between them are blurred (and I don't expect Sen. Stevens to be much help in explaining the difference.)
Obviously, the fear that advocates of net neutrality have is that operators like AT&T will favor content that it owns or controls and will block or slow down content in which it does not have a financial interest.
There are a couple of simple ways to deal with the problem. One would be to forbid network operators from owning or having a financial interest in the content they distribute. Everyone would get equal treatment. This solution would be simple and effective-though not politically achievable in today's pro-corporate culture.
Another would be to allow AT&T to sell a fast broadband connection for tiered entertainment programming-as long as it's clearly just that and no more. However, if AT&T also sells what's billed to customers as a high-speed Internet connection, then that service must provide every Web site owner and user equal bandwidth and access.
This would require a clear definition of what is and what is not the public Internet and require strong laws that prevent broadband operators from using confusing labeling (think HDTV) to mislead the public.
Such "truth in labeling" would no doubt be opposed by many emerging broadband networks who will most certainly try to extend their role as media gatekeepers to new distribution outlets.
History has proven that-if allowed-big media companies will attempt to dominate public culture. A free, open and fiercely protected public Internet decentralizes big media. As the 'Net is reinvented for multimedia, it is vitally important that the little guy is not squeezed out of the picture.
Even if it takes another decade, it's better that the net neutrality issue remains unresolved rather than be decided in the wrong way.
Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.
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