Celebrating a Web That's Free--For Now

On the morning of OneWebDay--which occurred, in case you were too busy actually using the Web to notice, on Sept. 22--I had breakfast with Susan Crawford, the Cardozo Law School professor who organized the global event, and Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist, who would speak at a lunchtime rally at the southern tip of Manhattan. Crawford explained to me that the day's festivities were a first shot at what she hoped would develop into a geeky parallel to Earth Day--annual worldwide celebrations of an invaluable resource.

Though run on a shoestring (Crawford hit up her relatives for cash), the premiere OneWebDay generated upbeat events from Tokyo to Sofia. Hundreds posted blog items or uploaded Flickr pictures in celebration. But because Crawford wanted the best vibes possible, she consciously steered the public conversation away from a darker Internet topic, the one that dominated our morning discussion. Crawford and Newmark--along with almost all the early people who helped get the Web underway --are concerned about its future. Specifically, they feel threatened by a looming assault on the egalitarian principle that has helped make the Web what it is--the principle of "Net neutrality."

It's a snoozeworthy term, but a useful one. Neutrality describes the way the Internet works now. All the digital bits that move on the Net, whether they are podcasts, SEC filings or articles in NEWSWEEK, are treated the same, with no fear or favor. This allows a level playing field that promotes innovation, as the humblest start-up or the most modest nonprofit organization can be assured that its content gets the same access to an audience as anyone else's does.

But recently the big telcos and cable companies that basically hold a duopoly on Internet service in a given area indicated they'd like a new scheme. They would charge big companies like Google and Yahoo big fees to guarantee that their content got to customers at higher speeds. In other words, there'd be an elite toll road alongside a free but crowded interstate. This loss of neutrality is what upsets the Net community. Google might be able to afford to pay extra, but what about craigslist, which serves millions of people on minimal revenues? Nonprofits and government couldn't come up with the dough to get their content treated favorably. And an innovative start-up like YouTube would never have gotten its audience if its video clips ran in slow motion compared with those of its competitors.

Though some lawmakers are interested in writing legislation to preserve Net neutrality, in the Senate the effort failed. A key opponent is Ted Stevens (Republican of Alaska), who heads the Commerce Committee. "[Legislating] Net neutrality is unnecessary government regulation," says Stevens via e-mail, "and is an attempt to shift the high cost of innovations from large companies to everyday Americans who log onto the Web." Stevens's committee is touting a survey that claims that consumers don't care about neutrality--but the respondents to the survey weren't told what neutrality meant, or that it is the current standard. Nor were they asked to consider what would happen if nonprofits, activists, start-ups and citizen journalists lost their audiences because they were stuck in a digital traffic jam--while the big guys paid their way out of it by fattening the wallets of companies like Verizon, which funded the survey.

OneWebDay is a great idea, but why not use it to address this threat to the Net's freedom? Can I suggest a theme song for next year's party? It's that Joni Mitchell tune where she sings, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone."