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Negotiating Net Neutrality

May 25, 2006

While Congress continues its tug of war over access to U.S. borders, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled today to consider a bill to guarantee fair and open access for users of the Internet in their own homes. Until recently virtually unknown beyond industry, policy, or academic circles, the concept of “net neutrality” is rapidly moving into public view. Net neutrality—competitive and nondiscriminatory access to the internet—has become a hot issue as some of the most powerful Internet service providers (ISPs), like Verizon and AT&T, make moves toward a model of tiered services. Such a service plan would reserve the bigger, faster Internet lanes for content providers who can pay for it—and that’s more likely to be Google and Yahoo than women’s interest groups or the Internet café next door. It risks the non-discriminatory content delivery practices on which the Internet was built. But even the largest content providers are pushing to keep the net free, because ultimately a tiered services model, with its potential to limit access to consumers, would hurt their bottom line. What does this mean for the average Internet consumer?  It means that, if the ISPs have their way, those who can afford it may soon be getting better quality content, faster. Yet no matter how much you’re willing to pay, if the source of the content you seek can’t or won’t shell out the ISP delivery fee, you may not be getting it at all. The economics of net neutrality are particularly important for women.  As Marjorie Heins, a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice in New York City and an expert in intellectual freedom, points out, women are disproportionately represented among small business owners. It is unlikely that these business owners will be able to devote a bigger share of their operational dollar to pay for premium delivery. Similarly, non-profit organizations that often operate on very lean budgets will be unable to pay to have their content delivered, thus restricting their ability to reach their constituents. Heins believes that public interest groups of all types, including “women’s rights [groups] will be relegated to the ‘dirt road’” instead of the fast lane. As a result, public interest groups like SavetheInternet.com and SaveAccess.org are mobilizing. Yesterday, ‘net neutrality’ demonstrations were held in a number of U.S. cities, including Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. Before the House committee today is a bill introduced last week by Representatives F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R, WI) and John Conyers, Jr. (D, MI)—the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006. Conyers said the proposal by “telecommunications monopolies to create ‘pay to play’ Internet access” threatens to “stifle innovation and diminish free speech.”
Tags: Media

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