Congress should ensure Internet providers don't play favorites

[Anchorage Daily News editorial]

Advocates of wide-open access to the nation's information superhighway are at odds with Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. They're worried that congressional update of the 1996 Telecommunications Act will allow companies that control Internet connections to play favorites with the content they deliver. Sen. Stevens chairs the key Senate committee on the issue, Commerce, and he does not share their concern.

The advocates point out that Internet providers are free to fast-track content from favored Web sites or companies, while slowing down transmissions from everybody else. To prevent those abuses, the access advocates want the new federal law to ensure "net neutrality." That's shorthand for saying Internet companies can't discriminate in delivering content to your computer.

You would be free to search the Web with the browser you chose, not one pushed on you by your Internet company. You would be free to see any legal Web site you want, at the fastest speed your connection allows, without worrying whether your Internet company is manipulating access rights to further its own commercial interests.

This is not a hypothetical concern.

In February, the Washington Post reported that "executives at other telecom companies, such as AT&T Inc. chief executive Edward E. Whitacre Jr., have suggested that Google, Yahoo Inc. and other such Internet services should have to pay fees for preferred access to consumers over (local high-speed Internet) lines." Already, a phone company in North Carolina tried to prevent its high-speed internet customers from switching to a competing Internet service to make their long-distance calls.

That phone company got in trouble, because a neutrality, or nondiscrimination, federal rule already applies to regular telephone service. Extending the same nondiscrimination principle to the Internet makes good sense. Internet providers have a lot more financial incentive and technical capability to exploit their control over the connection into your house. It's easy to imagine, for example, that the cable company supplying high-speed internet might want to discourage competition from an Internet-based movie-on-demand service by charging extra fees.

Sen. Stevens has said he doesn't see an immediate problem that requires regulation. In other words, he's reluctant to have the government set the playing rules until more companies are caught cheating. Apparently he thinks competition can be counted on to prevent any abuses.

Only problem is, local Internet service is not a fluid, totally free market with a lot of competitors. Many markets are served by only one or two high-speed Internet companies. Switching providers is not as easy as driving to the next gas station or grocery store. Special expertise and special equipment are required to switch. Many consumers may not even be sophisticated enough to know when their Internet service is playing favorites in sending content.

Net neutrality is hardly a heavy-handed government intrusion into the free-wheeling world of the Internet. It is a simple antitrust rule that protects consumers by keeping Internet companies from exploiting their control over connections. Congress should get ahead of the curve and ensure net neutrality before abuses begin to spread.

BOTTOM LINE: Net neutrality is a good idea. Sen. Ted Stevens should support it.

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