Free the Internet; Build broadband

[Seattle Times editorial]

Free the Internet...

Democracy is meaningless without structure. It requires support and infrastructure to become a word capable of giving entire nations voice and freedom.

The architects of America's democracy knew this. The Founding Fathers made sure newspapers and magazines were widely distributed by allowing periodicals to utilize low postage rates. Technologies like the airwaves, which were enshrined as the public's ownership, have also been federally regulated to be used as democratic tools. Lawmakers have another opportunity to use technology to bring the nation's democratic discussion to more people. The Internet has become home to modern-day pamphleteers, community discussion and innovation. Like any valuable resource, the Internet is in need of protection.

The Federal Communications Commission and Congress can provide this by passing an Internet-neutrality law. Congress can act this fall on a net-neutrality bill sponsored by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., that is before the Commerce Committee.

Working against such common-sense legislation are corporations such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T. These corporate octopuses vehemently oppose any laws that will erode their considerable influence as network providers.

The legislation seeks to prevent companies from manipulating the content that flows through the networks they have built. Currently, there is nothing stopping Comcast from slowing down content it did not create or from degrading content from competitors. AT&T illustrated the danger when it deleted comments made by Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder during a concert webcast through its Blue Room Web site.

Constructive regulation is needed to allow the Internet to grow and mature. It has the potential to connect people from the country's remote corners to residents of the biggest cities. The Internet is a place where ideas catch fire, where like minds find refuge and debates can rage.

The Internet cannot belong to a couple of gigantic corporations. A handful of telecommunication and cable companies should not be entrusted with something as precious as our diverse, national dialogue.

...Build Broadband

THE Internet is an important conduit to commerce and innovation, a medium that has wildly exciting communication potential. Yet, the United States' paltry broadband network lags behind most of the industrialized world.

Our weak Internet infrastructure not only puts the nation at a competitive economic disadvantage, it threatens democracy. Japan and South Korea have cheaper Internet service that is many times faster than that in the U.S. To get an idea of how far behind Japan we are, think of our network as a Soviet-era grocery store and Japan's as Whole Foods.

At least a dozen countries have zipped by America because of smart government regulations that encouraged the build-out of networks and promoted competition. It is time Congress and the Federal Communications Commission did the same.

A national discussion about what we want, and need, for the Internet of the future is part of the solution.

Should it be treated like the airwaves, which belong to the public? Can network providers like AT&T be forced to allow broadband startups onto their lines? Could a system modeled after public utility districts help broadband reach areas that are not attractive to network providers?

So far, the discussion has been defined by lobbyists for the telecom and cable companies, which have spent many millions of dollars opposing network neutrality and any legislation that would force competition. How much will their networks be worth if all the brightest minds migrate to where their talents can contribute to society and be monetized?

Americans should be worried about the current level of service. This is a serious problem that goes beyond the annoyance of slow-loading Web pages. Many rural and poor areas still use painfully slow dial-up Internet connections and will not get broadband anytime soon. Those with no access, or prohibitive access, will be silenced as more communication, services and news media jump to the Internet.

Not only does the U.S. risk falling behind its partners and competitors, a large swath of American voices will disappear if broadband is left to network providers. That's a great loss for a democracy.

article originally published at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/editorialsopinion/2003885124_netned16.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey