The Internet may not be free for much longer. The Republicans who control the House of Representatives, joined by two-thirds of the Democrats, just voted to allow telephone and cable companies that control Internet traffic to begin charging more for meaningful access. The move could create two classes of online users: the haves and the have-nots. In the process, it could destroy a revolutionary democratic-communication medium that empowers all. That conservative Republicans favor such a scheme comes as no surprise. But the fact that House Democrats — including Stephen Lynch and Richard Neal of Massachusetts, James Langevin and Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, and Mike Michaud of Maine — joined the robber barons of the right wing on this issue is a rude reminder that even nominally sensible elected officials can be woefully out of touch with the interests of average Americans.
As grim as this development is, the legislation now moves to the Senate where there is at least a hope, albeit a dimming one, that it can be modified, killed, or suffer a much-to-be-desired death due to a failure to reach compromise.
The best hope of saving the Internet from the clutches of corporate pirates is the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2006, which is the brainchild of Senators Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, and Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota. The Internet Freedom Act protects what’s known as “network neutrality” by defining the obligations of broadband providers as they supply the link between content providers and consumers.
“The Snowe-Dorgan bill will allow innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors who rely on the certainty of that open marketplace to continue to fuel the engine of our nation’s economy and our global leadership in Internet technology and services,” says a corporate group supporting the legislation. Among that group are Amazon.com, eBay, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. They further say: “Our companies join an ever-growing group of consumer and public interest groups, trade associations, bloggers, content and service companies, individuals, and family and religious organizations who believe strongly in the open Internet.”
The goal is to prevent telecommunication and cable companies from defining and controlling the Internet experience and marketplace — at a point when access to computer hardware has become all but universal.
To keep the Internet relatively free and accessible, it is important that we write our senators now. So far, 12 senators have said they support Snowe’s proposal. In New England they are: John Kerry of Massachusetts, Christopher Dodd and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
Tax dollars paid for the research that developed the Internet, to the tune of billions of dollars. And tax dollars help keep it functioning at a cost of more than $40 million a year. The Internet belongs to the people, not special interests. Let’s keep it that way.