What would you say if someone wanted to turn the information superhighway into a toll road? Last year, a Supreme Court ruling and Federal Communications Commission decision declared that the Internet does not fall under existing communication service laws, putting Internet regulation in legal limbo. Since then, cable and telephone companies have been discussing how to profit from this decision. One of their ideas is to create a “multitiered” Internet.
That sound you’re hearing is the death knell of equality, or net neutrality, on the Web. Net neutrality means that after paying for service, everyone can access the Internet as fast as their connection will allow, without artificial handicaps from the Internet provider. This “multitiered” approach that telecommunications companies are planning is really means that there will be a fast Internet capable of handling video and other high-bandwidth activities, and a slow Internet that can’t, and if you want access to the fast one, be ready to pay up.
Telecommunications companies would also be able to charge extra to visit certain Web sites based on how frequently they’re accessed and what kind of information they provide, setting up barriers to entry that never existed before. Those that can’t or won’t pay could see their accessibility limited. This would give a huge advantage to content providers with deep financial resources, and make it unlikely for upstart ones like Youtube.com to succeed.
Groups as diverse as Moveon.org to the Christian Coalition have spoken in support of net neutrality. They fear that these changes could give telecommunications companies power tantamount to censorship by limiting what the people are able to access.
This multitiered system would go against the egalitarian nature of the Internet, where anyone with a nominal amount of money and time can make their voice heard throughout the world. Its importance in our daily lives, especially as college students, cannot be underestimated.
Congress will consider the issue after the November elections. If legislation to protect net neutrality isn’t passed soon, we might find that free speech comes with a price tag.