When the Net Goes From Free to Fee

What makes the Internet great? Is it Instant Messages, search results, blog rants, sending photos to Grandma, watching clips of Jon Stewart riffing on Cheney? Actually, it's all that and much, much more: the whole information enchilada. Without benefit of a CEO, oversight committee or king, the Net has evolved into a vital cornucopia of goods and goodies because of its totally open nature--NEWSWEEK's bits are treated the same as a blogger's, and a mom-and-pop online emporium is as accessible as Amazon.com. That's why when we hear one of the Internet's inventors, the top mind in cyberlaw and a U.S. senator all talking about the end of the Internet, it's time to start listening.

What's the threat here? That the big telecom and cable companies--which provide almost all the high-speed Internet to consumers--will abandon the principle of "Net neutrality," where every bit is treated equally and start-ups compete with giants on a level playing field. Instead, they may offer, for a fee, favored status to bit hogs like AOL, Google and CBS. Consumers would essentially be getting two kinds of Internet. One version would be free, as everything is now. The other would be the digital equivalent of HOV lanes on highways, only instead of having three occupants to qualify for the speed slot, sites and services would have to pony up huge tolls.

It's true we desperately need our broadband providers to give us bigger Internet pipes to feed our need for bandwidth-gobbling activities like streaming video. (We are way behind countries like Japan and South Korea, which typically offer consumers speeds up to 50 times faster, often at lower prices than what we pay for our poky consumer-level cable and DSL.) But as explained by AT&T's head of external affairs, Jim Cicconi, the increase in capacity would come mainly in those new limousine lanes. "We're building a new capacity, and we have the right to charge people to use it," he says. While AT&T promises not to block or degrade the services and Web sites in the free lanes, companies that don't pay (or are denied access because of competitive reasons) would essentially be relegated to an eternal traffic jam.

The broadband providers say that they do support an open Internet, and we should view these premium services as supplements, to ensure that applications like voice and video get reliable quality. But the bottom line is that your bits won't be treated the same as my bits.

"This would literally be the end of the Internet," says Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig. His complaint isn't that the Googles of the world may have to pay if they want fast-lane access--the winners can take care of themselves. Instead, he fears that the next Google won't ever get the chance to establish itself--because it would be stuck in the slow lane. Google itself finds the concept abhorrent, and not because it may have to pay AT&T. "New innovation in the marketplace increases our business," says Google's Vint Cert, a recent hire who is one of the Internet's creators. If start-ups can't go fast, he says, the Internet will be a "zero-sum game."

These fears have led several legislators to explore ways to stop the broadband gang from splitting the Internet into first class and steerage. "I want to make sure that equal content gets equal treatment," says Sen. Ron Wyden (Democrat of Oregon), who is preparing a bill to lock in that principle. Considering the lobbying power of the telecom and cable industry, legislation like that is no shoo-in. But if something isn't done to preserve neutrality, we may find the future of the Internet stuck in traffic.