Anyone who doubts that our country is deeply divided should spend a few hours exploring the world of political weblogs.
Around the clock, day after day, concerned citizens are riveted to their computer screens. Their fingers dance over their keyboards as they polish proposals, update journal entries and craft detailed rebuttals to anonymous opponents. Digitally encoded as a series of 0s and 1s, these messages flow back and forth between network nodes, as reliably as the tides.
Whether affiliated with the left or the right, most political bloggers are opinionated dreamers who are deeply committed to their beliefs. It is tempting to mock these quirky souls who think they can change the world through words, ideas and hyperlinks. We can dismiss them as compulsive news fanatics who desperately need to spend some time away from their computers.
Nevertheless, they are helping to carry the torch of American democracy in the 21st century. When liberal bloggers tackled Trent Lott for comments that were widely perceived as racist, the Mississippi politician was forced to surrender his position as Senate Majority Leader. When Dan Rather publicized a stack of memos related to President Bush's military service, bloggers proved that the documents had been forged, resulting in his swift departure from the CBS Evening News.
Because they spend so much time fighting among themselves, it is shocking when bloggers from all sides of the political spectrum actually agree on something. During the past few weeks, liberal and conservative weblog authors have identified common ground around the issue of network neutrality. Working together, they are struggling to preserve the medium that makes their existence possible.
More than 1,500 bloggers have added their voice to SavetheInternet.com, a coalition that hopes to stop telephone and cable companies from severely weakening the Internet. Other allies include the American Library Association, the Parents Television Council, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Common Cause, MoveOn.org and Gun Owners of America. Companies such as Microsoft, Intel, Amazon and Google have also voiced their support.
It helps to have a handle on the concept of "network neutrality" to understand the gravity of legislation currently winding its way through Capitol Hill. From the outset, the Internet has been premised on the assumption that all websites and nodes would be treated the same and guaranteed equal access to the global network. As media expert Timothy Karr explains, network neutrality recognizes that "the network's only job is to move data, not to stifle user innovation by selecting which services to privilege with higher speeds." These principles are already enshrined in law in Japan, the United Kingdom and South Korea.
In many ways, "network neutrality" is similar to the "common carriage" principle that has governed railroad and telephone industries for more than a century. Because they are "common carriers," companies are legally required to charge all clients the same rate for equivalent services. Their pricing must be "content neutral," a policy that has stimulated the free flow of ideas while enabling the strategies of American entrepreneurs.
A move away from network neutrality could effectively muzzle the voices of artists, community organizers and entrepreneurs.
But times are changing. Although the growth of the Internet was fueled by a commitment to network neutrality, the 'net is not governed by common-carrier regulations. Telephone and cable companies (AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner and Comcast) are determined to overturn neutrality policies that have guided the growth of the Internet since its inception. In its place, they envision a tiered rate system that would charge individuals based on the amount of bandwidth they use, the types of devices attached to the network and the sorts of information services that they consume.
Opponents of network neutrality defend their tiered-pricing plans by claiming that the Internet should not be stifled by government regulations. However, regulation and network neutrality are highly compatible. The telecommunication and cable companies are monopolies. When dealing with monopolistic entities that control fundamental resources and services, a moderate amount of government regulation is justified to protect the market.
When I was a child, it was almost impossible to acquire a telephone at any place other than the telephone company. In addition to the cost of the handset, the company also charged a monthly fee for the use of an additional device at the same telephone number. Attaching a second phone without notifying Ma Bell was a clear violation of the rules. Contemporary critics worry that today's giants will return to these discriminatory practices, charging higher rates for unapproved devices (e.g., iPods and video-game consoles) while waiving fees for their own products.
As Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu recently explained in testimony to the U.S. Congress, "It is as if the electric company one day announced that refrigerators made by GE would henceforth not work quite as well as those made by Samsung."
Scholars also fear that Internet providers will allow basic services to degrade while extracting exorbitant fees from established players. New networking technologies make it possible for companies to carefully inspect data packets circulated through the network. Privileged material could flow at faster rates, non-privileged material might be transmitted at much lower speeds, and some content might be eliminated altogether.
These are not just paranoid fantasies. Last year, when employees of the Canadian communication company Telus went on strike, the firm secretly stopped its Internet subscribers from accessing pro-union websites. Last month, America Online filtered out all e-mail messages that referenced a nonprofit group opposed to the company's policies.
Describing this as the "Tony Soprano model of networking," Wu points out that this approach is "not particularly good for the nation's economy, innovation or consumer welfare." The telecommunication and cable companies are monopolies. If the rules are changed, small businesses and individual citizens will be unable to compete.
By deliberately degrading services provided to the public sector, and by excluding certain devices and types of data, a move away from network neutrality would stifle bloggers, artists, students, teachers, community organizers, entrepreneurs, amateur filmmakers and all Americans who have found their voice in the global Internet.
In a letter mailed to Capitol Hill recently, the Caucus for Television Producers, Writers and Directors argued that "like the networks that monopolize the television industry, the telecom and cable giants seek to control both the content and its delivery to the public. … Without a guarantee of network neutrality, consumers could pay more for less, local creativity and innovation could be stifled, and the Internet could face the fate of radio and television — a handful of companies producing, promoting, owning and controlling virtually everything Americans watch and hear."
You can learn more about the struggle to preserve network neutrality by visiting the site www.savetheinternet.com. You can also write a letter to your elected representatives. Votes on the Hill have splintered along party lines, but the recent alliance between conservative and liberal bloggers demonstrates that partisan differences can be overcome when so much is at firstname.lastname@example.org