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Consumers use the Internet for nearly everything — learning, shopping, communicating, entertainment and more. Sites like eBay and Google got off the ground because of the fundamental premise that every websurfer could visit it.  That this fact might be threatened seems might seem like a stretch.  But broadband providers could block websites with political viewpoints they disagree with, or they could slow down sites of companies they’re not affiliated with so much that a websurfer might click elsewhere. Without protecting the freedom we take for granted, this could be the new Internet.

What Net Neutrality Means

If you want to run a certain Web browser, your Internet provider should not be able to force you to use their Web browser.  Likewise, if you want to surf the net for the best refrigerator, your Internet provider should not be able to limit you to their preferred refrigerator store.  In other words, Internet Service Providers should remain neutral for such information.

Threats to Neutrality

Telephone companies are prohibited from discriminating against the content offered over their basic telephone connections. But those prohibitions might not apply over DSL or new fiber-optic networks.  The cable companies are not covered by any requirement. Instead the Federal Communications Commission says that the internet freedom principles are statements of their policy, but they have no built-in enforcement mechanism.  If Congress amends the Telecommunications Act of 1996, they should make sure that the Internet isn’t held hostage by the broadband giants.

When a small local phone company, Madison River, blocked their DSL customers from using Vonage service in 2004, the FCC quickly stepped in and Madison River stopped the practice and paid a fine.  But the regulations that explicitly banned blocking have since been overturned.  Currently a statement of FCC policy prohibits similar blocking, but it’s unclear how the Commission will enforce that in the future.

Other companies, like ClearWire, a wireless broadband company that serves many customers who can get broadband nowhere else, also blocks Vonage and other VOIP providers—except their affiliated VOIP service.

But its not just VOIP providers and users that have to worry.  In Canada, the major phone company that dominates the western-half of the country, Telus, was in the midst of a labor dispute and blocked their customers from visiting a website sympathetic to its union.  The collateral damage was extensive—the block also affected consumers of different telephone companies who rely on Telus for connecting them to the Internet.  Also affected were the hundreds of other websites that shared the same web hosting server as the blocked site.  Consumers couldn’t visit those sites for days.

In America, Comcast, the largest cable company, and biggest seller of cable modem service, has an Acceptable Use Policy that prohibits use "for any business enterprise or purpose."  It is up to Comcast to decide one day if that might prevent you from buying a book online, or selling antiques at an online auction.

Open networks are important to new innovations like Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP.  Vonage, Packet8 and Lingo are selling services and devices that allow you to make voice calls at reduced rates over broadband connections. 

Cable companies and telephone companies are beginning to jump onto the bandwagon and offer similar services.  But because cable companies are not subject to network neutrality, cable companies could block a competing VoIP service, forcing consumers to pick the cable service instead. 

The Center for Digital Democracy outlines what might happen to the open Internet if the cable and telephone giants have their way.

Tim Wu, an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Law wrote a paper, "Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination," (PDF) arguing that without network neutrality protections, Internet providers could discriminate against certain types of users and uses.  Wu and Larry Lessig wrote to the FCC endorsing network neutrality (PDF) and outlining their arguments for it.

Broadband Competition – Open Access

The vast majority of home broadband connections use DSL or cable modems.  Alternatives like community-provided or upstart fiber-optic lines or wireless are only promises for most Americans.  To get the real choices that drive down prices, many companies should be able to sell Internet services to consumers and small-businesses.

Open access is in the public interest, as Dr. Mark Cooper, Director of Research at Consumer Federation of America detailed in the executive summary of his white paper "The Public Interest In Open Communications Networks" (PDF).  He compared these high-speed data connections to other open networks like roads, telegraph and telephone networks.

While cable and telephone companies aren’t required to open their networks to competitors, community-built networks might be the next frontier for new entrepreneurs who want to sell consumers Internet service cheaper than the big guys.  In Tacoma, Washington, three ISPs compete for customers using the Click! Network built by the municipally-owned electric utility.  Fiber-optic networks like UTOPIA, being built by 14 Utah cities and Wireless Philadelphia, a Wi-Fi network conceived to cover the entire Pennsylvania city, are all using an open-access model—they build the network and sell wholesale access to entrepreneurs, who in turn sell Internet services directly to consumers

Jeff Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy, has recommendations on how to support an open, democratic Internet.  The Center has a proposed set of principles called the "Broadband Bill of Rights."

The Loss of Open Access

Until recently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created policies that treated the Internet over telephone wires differently than the Internet over cable TV wires.  Smaller and independent Internet Service Providers (ISPs), along with consumer advocates, took the FCC to court over this issue, in a case that reached the Supreme Court. The Court decided that the FCC had the authority to deregulate how it wanted, when it wanted.  Reacting quickly to the decision, the FCC then deregulated the telephone companies’ DSL and fiber-optic connections--limiting consumer choices.

Recent History of Open Access

During the late 1990s, giant Internet service provider America Online figured its future growth was limited to dial-up phone lines it had legal access to.  AOL needed the ability to sell its service on faster DSL and cable modem connections. 

Many public-interest groups supported these and similar efforts because the Internet as we know it today could not have been created without many companies providing many different services that all promised its customers that they could communicate with anyone else on the Internet, and they could visit any website.

Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America and Media Access Project were early proponents of open access for cable Internet service and published a February 2000 paper that outlined the threat of the closed networks that some companies supported.

Those three groups, plus the Benton Foundation, Center for Media Education, the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy and the Electronic Privacy Information Center formed the Digital Media Forum, which released a September 2000 study (PDF) on open access by Dr. Dhavan V. Shah.

Larry Lessig, a Stanford Law School professor, submitted a filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) when AT&T purchased Media One's cable television holdings, arguing similarly that without open access, AT&T could exert undue influence on the high-speed Internet market.

And in a 2001 paper, "Tangled Web: The Internet and Broadband Open Access Policy," (PDF) AARP outlined how the broadband market hasn't sustained competition.

Limited Open Access Victories on Cable

AOL dropped their fight for open access on cable networks after their purchase of TimeWarner 2000.  TimeWarner’s holdings included TimeWarner Cable, and a share of BrightHouse Communications.  Both sold Roadrunner, a high-speed cable modem service.  Consumer groups fought for, and won, cable modem competition for Time Warner Cable and Brighthouse customers during the AOL/Time Warner merger approval process.  This open access requirement will expire in 2005.

Other cable companies, including Comcast, made public promises and commitments to Congress and the FCC that they would allow open access for Internet Service Providers on their systems, but in practice have not really followed through on this pledge.  Competition for Internet access over Comcast's network exists in only a handful of locations in four states.

For a special look at the affects of closed cable Internet connections, read Cable's Computer Connection within the TV, Radio and Cable section of