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Let Internet Freedom Ring
June 19, 2006

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

In August 2005 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) changed the legal status of telephone companies by lifting restrictions that would enable them twelve months down the road to compete with cable firms.

The time for implementation has just about arrived. Phone companies are readying themselves to add cable TV and beef up Internet access services in a way that they have previously been unable to.

Along with the new avenues that are opening up to the phone companies comes a new term, one that sounds innocuous. It's called "net neutrality" and involves an issue that will impact every single one of us.

Net neutrality pertains to the Internet. Simply defined, it means that the Internet has always been a place where everyone can enter the cyber territory. It is essential that it remain so.

It's the way the Internet has always worked. The operation exemplifies one of the maxims of American jurisprudence: equal opportunity. But with the FCC changes going into effect there is a growing concern about the regulations' influence on the net, particularly the impact on the way in which services are processed and content is handled.

This brings up two critical questions: Who will ultimately control the Internet and will content be a determining factor for access?

Here are the digital dynamics. Corporate giants are looking to protect or expand their cyber-turf. The new net rules have created an ultimate tag team death match between AT&T and Verizon in one corner and Google and Microsoft in the other.

The referee of the match is the government, which has long sought to gain a greater regulatory foothold over the Internet.

Also the providers of high-speed Internet access want to create a multi-tiered system and charge more dollars for a faster connection. Think of this as a sort of Internet tollway. But are we to have different tiers of service and additional costs depending on content?

Right now anyone who uses the Internet should be hearing alarm bells. The free marketplace of ideas, which was an original rationale behind the First Amendment, has up until now been fully realized in the Internet's display of variety, innovation and individual autonomy.

In addition to being an unparalleled bastion of free expression, the Internet has always been a place where access was in no way determined by content. Folks could hit the information superhighway regardless of the provisions in their backpacks, cash in their cars or junk in their trunk. What one took along on his or her journey was irrelevant. It's a romantic notion that became a reality. Anyone with a computer could be a content provider and distribute ideas, opinions and artistic expression across the globe.

Another bright note advantage is that freedom on the Internet has yielded tremendous individual, corporate and national financial gain. Small businesses have been able to compete more effectively with larger ones, thus spurring economic growth.

Interestingly, the notion of net neutrality is currently transcending politics. Recently, two groups from opposite ends of the political spectrum combined forces on the issue. The Christian Coalition and both endorsed legislation insuring that Internet content retains its equal footing.

Phone and cable companies, which want to make decisions concerning what content gets on the Internet, claim to be preserving the free market. But in reality what has been set up is a highly distorted market, with the government regulatory action creating a cable and phone company duopoly.

Still, the government is the arbiter of what can and cannot be done by these companies, so it has the capacity to impose rules that include the perpetuation of net neutrality.

The Senate has been negotiating net neutrality legislation in the aftermath of the House's refusal to pass a proposed neutrality amendment to the telecommunications bill, the same legislation that lets phone companies enter the cable TV business.

If freedom on the Internet is to be preserved, it must be done with as little government involvement as possible. Unfortunately, current bills have looked to the FCC to enforce the neutrality provisions. Based on the FCC's track record, the innovation-supressing agency is far from the ideal candidate to preserve neutrality.

It would be far better for the final bill to follow the antitrust model and be enforced by the courts rather than the highly flawed FCC.

Cutting to the chase, net neutrality equals net freedom. Take up your digital arms and fight hard for this one.

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Copyright © 2006
James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
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