Monday, May 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ill effects of a gated cyber world

If computer-network providers are allowed to hijack the Internet, the damage will go much deeper than the consumers' wallets. Democracy will be at risk with the inevitable limiting of voices if Internet neutrality is not ensured.

AT&T and other network providers such as Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner are pushing Congress to strike any language from the new telecom bill — the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006 — that would eliminate the ability to charge extra for the speedy service available to all currently on those networks. Here is what will happen if the network companies prevail: Internet customers would pay additional fees to have Web sites and other services that use the network, download nearly instantaneously, while Web sites for customers who do not pay extra would download slower.

Do not be fooled by what Internet neutrality opponents are saying. Internet neutrality is not a government restriction on the Internet. The ether-form of the Internet has allowed it to elude corporations, and has connected humans in a world never lived in before. This environment has also spurred innovations at a dizzying pace.

The effect of allowing a few companies to toll traffic across the pipes through which Web content flows would be chilling, and primed for abuse. Not only could the network keepers decide what and whom to charge, the companies could use this power as a tool to promote their services before a competitor. How will telephone companies that provide DSL respond to new Internet accessories like Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), the telephone service provided across the Internet?

The biggest loser in a gated cyber world would be American democracy. Democracy is already suffering from the effects of consolidation, especially in the media where only a handful of companies either own outright or own interests in films, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, book publishing, and any other media channel that can be devoured.

Congress should think of that before funneling more power into the hands of a few.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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