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When we log onto the Internet, we take lots of things for granted. We assume that we'll be able to access whatever Web site we want, whenever we want to go there. We assume that we can use any feature we like -- watching online video, listening to podcasts, searching, emailing, and instant messaging -- anytime we choose. We assume that we can attach devices like wireless routers, game controllers, or extra hard drives to make our online experience better.
What makes all these assumptions possible is "Network Neutrality," the guiding principle that ensures the Internet remains free and unrestricted. Net Neutrality prevents the companies that control the wires bringing you the Internet from discriminating against content based on its ownership or source. But that could all change.
The biggest cable and telephone companies would like to charge money for smooth access to Web sites, speed to run applications, and permission to plug in devices. These network giants believe they should be able to charge Web site operators, application providers, and device manufacturers for the right to use the network. Those who don't make a deal and pay up will experience discrimination: Their sites won't load as quickly, their applications and devices won't work as well. Without legal protection, consumers could find that a network operator has blocked the Web site of a competitor, or slowed it down so much that it's unusable.
The network owners say they want a "tiered" Internet. If you pay to get in the top tier, your site and your service will run fast. If you don't, you'll be in the slow lane.
Discrimination: The Internet was designed as an open medium. The fundamental idea of the Internet since its inception is that every Web site, every feature, and every service should be treated exactly the same. That's how bloggers can compete with CNN or USA Today for readers. That's how up-and-coming musicians can build underground audiences before they get their first top-40 single. That's why when you use a search engine, you see a hit list of the sites that are the closest match to your request -- not those who paid the most to reach you. Discrimination endangers our basic Internet freedoms.
Double-dipping: Traditionally, network owners have built a business model by charging consumers for access. Now they want to charge you for access to the network, and then charge you again for the things you do while you're online. They may not charge you directly via pay-per-view Web sites. But they will charge all the service providers you use -- who will pass those costs along to you in the form of price hikes or new charges to view content.
Stifling innovation: Net Neutrality ensures that innovators can start small and dream big about being the next eBay or Google without facing insurmountable hurdles. Unless we preserve Net Neutrality, startups and entrepreneurs will be muscled out of the marketplace by big corporations that pay for a top spot on the Web. On a tiered Internet controlled by the phone and cable companies, only their own content and services -- or those offered by corporate partners who pony up enough "protection money" -- will enjoy life in the fast lane.
Make no mistake: The freewheeling Internet as we know it could very well become history.
What does that mean? It means we could be heading toward a pay-per-view Internet where Web sites have fees. It means we may have to pay a network tax to run voice-over-the-Internet phones, use an advanced search engine, or chat via Instant Messenger. The next generation of magical new inventions will be shut out of the top-tier service level, while the network owners will rake in even greater profits.