Civil-liberties tug-of-war

State politicians take a national stand
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  June 20, 2007

An amazing thing about legislative bodies is their ability to take stands on just about anything — from what type of fish can be used as bait, to promotion of alternative fuels, to plumbing licensure. It’s a wide range, and those examples just skim the surface.

But while many legislative actions are focused on specific niches of the community, there are times when state politicians dip their toes into more all-encompassing waters — and here in Maine, such a time is now.

State politicians recently acted on behalf of us little guys on two issues of national importance — Internet regulation and a sweeping identification system. In doing so, the Legislature set precedents for other states. When it rejected Real IDs (the standardized system of national identification cards that Congress approved in 2005 and that’s set to go into effect in 2009), Maine started a domino effect through states near (like New Hampshire) and far (like Montana). In the case of so-called “net neutrality” (more on that later; for now we’ll describe it as Internet equality), they’re hoping to do so.

It’s not surprising that other states are taking notice. The debates over both net neutrality and Real ID have whipped up some impressive amounts of hot air, in addition to legitimate worries, and regulatory wrangling. That the state legislature has taken these issues on at all is impressive; it’s too early to tell whether or not it’s also a bit quixotic.

Consider the following a primer on both subjects, so that as they continue to sweep the national stage (which they inevitably will), we can all say we were there first.

Net Neutrality
It’s the rare brain that can fully comprehend what net neutrality actually means.

At its core, the movement is about equality in the wide world of the Web. Net neutrality proponents, such as the Maine Civil Liberties Union and local small-Internet-business owners, don’t want big corporations like Time Warner or Verizon to “run the Internet” — charging more to load Yahoo’s pages faster, for example, or blocking customers from visiting MySpace.

The corporations say it’s their right to charge — and for customers to pay — in return for better network infrastructure and higher-speed service. Right now, telecom companies charge the end user for speed — which is why you pay more for Time Warner’s high-speed RoadRunner service than for dialup, and why your office likely gets even faster speed, for more cost. The same is true for Web sites — sites like or that want extra bandwidth pay for it. But beyond that, all that Internet traffic is prioritized equally. Your e-mail to your mom about your vacation typically travels at the same speed as a video stream from CNN to a news junkie on the other side of the world.

What the telecom companies want to do — in order to make more money on the bandwidth they already have, and which they are paying to maintain, expand, and operate — is to get, say, to pay them more money, and then give eBay’s Internet traffic priority over your e-mail. Net neutrality would guard against those extra fees, which inevitably would trickle down to the consumer.

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