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Help save the Internet, support 'net neutrality' 

There's a lot of confusion about "net neutrality" these days. That's one result of a federal court decision that favored cable and Internet giant Comcast Corp. over the Federal Communications Commission. If you think net neutrality isn't something you need to be concerned about, please read on.

First, some background. The court case started in 2007, when Comcast customers realized the company was slowing or stopping, or "throttling," peer-to-peer network sharing on the Web. Two groups representing customers filed suit, and the FCC ruled that Comcast's actions violated the commission's "Internet Policy Statement," which holds that "consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice." Comcast challenged the ruling, and ended up with a victory when a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC doesn't have the authority to enforce net neutrality, which mandates that companies treat all Internet traffic equally.

We hope the death of net neutrality is only temporary. If the court ruling stands, the Internet as we know it will be ruined. Fortunately, there's something you can do about it. The larger Internet companies -- Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, etc. -- think Web site owners should be forced to pay them an extra fee to guarantee fast connections. It's called "tiered access" and it's a policy that would turn what used to be called the "information superhighway" into a toll road that would give critical advantages to big-buck corporations.

One of the best things about the Internet is its wide-open creativity, as well as the fact that Joe Citizen's little Web site has the same access to phone lines as a behemoth like, say, Wal-Mart.com. Over the past decade-plus, that egalitarian quality has allowed formerly small start-up sites such as Salon, YouTube, Secondlife, Facebook and hundreds of others to flourish and become part of our lives. But you can kiss that kind of openness goodbye if Congress doesn't manage to set new rules for net neutrality. If the current court ruling stands, sites with a big bankroll -- say, Target.com -- would get super-fast connections while small-fry sites that couldn't pay the toll would chug along at a sluggish pace. This is so obviously unfair, you wonder where the Comcasts of the world get the nerve to defend it. As technology writer Annalee Newitz suggests, "it would be like letting an electricity company cut a deal with GE so that only GE appliances got good current."

That's kind of funny, but unfortunately the big cable/Internet companies are dead serious. Their viewpoint was summed up in late 2005 when former AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre famously told a reporter from Business Week, "The Internet can't be free ... for a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [phone lines] for free is nuts!"

If you think this sounds like extortion, you're not the only one. Consumers are speaking up, too, as more of them get the news and realize that the giant phone companies' plans would leave them with fewer online choices.

Who could be hurt by tiered access? It's a long list. Nonprofits, political advocacy groups, telecommuters, online purchasers who want a bargain, small businesses, and bloggers would generally be out of luck. Folks who own iPods could find their access to iTunes slowed to a crawl while a company like Time Warner offered its Roadrunner clients a faster connection to a higher-priced service it owned. Your options as a consumer could be hindered by your Internet provider, which could offer the fastest connections to companies that had ponied up ransom money for more bandwidth. Web innovators would be squashed like bugs in the path of big corporations with an interest in protecting the electronic status quo. Fortunately, there is still time to overrule the court, and stop the giant phone companies from wrecking the Internet. It amounts to installing net neutrality into federal law. A central principle of the Internet, network neutrality holds that all users have equal access to phone lines, and providers can't give any users special treatment, even at a price. Network neutrality has been so fundamental to the success of the Internet, even former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who usually sided with big business interests, described it as one of the basic rules of "Internet freedom" and the reason the Web has nurtured so much technological creativity.

The problem, as evidenced by the recent court ruling, is that net neutrality has never been written into U.S. law. Here's where you can do something about it.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009 last year, with 21 co-sponsors. It would make it illegal for companies to discriminate against users and types of content, and would, in effect, make net neutrality the law of the land rather than an "Internet tradition." The bill hasn't made it out of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce yet, so the time is right to call or e-mail Congress.

Most politicians assume no one's paying attention to this issue. What you can do is let your members of Congress know that you're well aware of the issue, and how you feel about it. If Comcast and its buddies succeed, the Internet will be centrally controlled by the companies who own the wires, and everyone but mega-corporations will be SOL. Don't let that happen.

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