Sheila S. Kennedy

Why You Should Care About Net Neutrality

Filed By Sheila S. Kennedy | June 29, 2006 10:17 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics

As I write this, a Senate committee is wrangling over a variety of provisions in a Telecommunications bill. Most citizens--if they are aware of this bill at all, which is doubtful--will look at the technical nature of the legislation and conclude that it is an arcane discussion between large corporate interests and regulators (true) and that it is of little relevance to average voters (false).

In reality, one of the provisions under dispute could have profound effects on all of us, but especially on the less powerful--and those in more marginalized communities. Like the gay community.

Currently, most web sites are able to be accessed at a fairly fast speed. A person can create a blog or web site like the one you are reading right now, and it will be available to people all over the world. The large cable and telephone companies are proposing regulations that would change that--changes the the way the Internet has always worked. Under that proposal, they could charge money for faster access. Corporations or wealthier individuals could pay to have their web sites load faster. (One person I know calls this "protection money," because the telecom giants currently have a monopoly on the telephone and cable lines that the Internet runs through. It would be like someone owning the streets, and letting bike riders use them for free, while charging to drive on them.)

The bottom line is that your favorite web sites--like become bicycles on that road we call the World Wide Web--relegated to the Internet's bike lane if the companies that own the road are successful in getting this measure passed. The proposal from the telecommunications and cable companies would let ISPs and other Web businesses pay extra to receive preferential treatment for their data packets carrying everything from video to music to text over the Internet. Such "packet prioritization" would deliver a more responsive Web to those sites' visitors-an especially valuable perk for high-bandwidth services like streaming video, but important to others as well.

Think about it--how patient are you with slow-loading sites? I'm not. If something is taking too long to load, unless it's something I really, really need, I don't wait. I go elsewhere. It's not a phenomenon limited to the web--how often do you return to restaurants or retail stores with poor service?

Until now, one of the great benefits of the internet has been its equal accessibility. It used to be that the costs of being heard--the "entry costs" of having a meaningful voice in public debate--were prohibitive. Want to start a newspaper? It'll cost you millions. What to get a book published? Not easy--as I can attest from experience. But want to start a web site? All you need is a computer, web access and time. The only limit you face is audience: do you have a message that others want to hear?

The Web is the ideal "marketplace of ideas," where those expressing ideas that may not be "mainstream" or "popular" or sufficiently in line with majority beliefs can compete on an equal footing. The web has been an enormous boon to minority opinions; it has been especially to the ability of the gay community to communicate with--and influence--a broader public.

That's what "net neutrality" is: equality. Access to the marketplace of ideas. An ability to penetrate the official "echo chamber." And that's what is under assault.

If you care about equality, you should care about preserving net neutrality.

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Marla R. Stevens | July 27, 2006 1:23 AM

I've done my part -- e-mailing all the Congresspeople I know, talking with those whose ears I have access to, passing the message to act on to others -- but I'd love an update and what steps should be taken next.