If you wanted to get on the Internet back in the early 1990s, chances are you joined one of the main commercial computer networks at the time, like Prodigy, CompuServe or America Online, typically through a package deal when you bought a computer. For the most part, each of these networks was set up as a kind of gated community whose content was available exclusively to paying network members. Only e-mail could pass from one network to another, and everything else people made available on the networks they usednews pages, bulletin boards, software and so onwas off limits to outsiders.
All of this changed considerably after 1992, with the rise of the World Wide Web. The Web distributed Internet content in a manner that was more friendly to new computer users, which led to a dramatic escalation of the quantity and quality of content outside of the gated communities of Prodigy and CompuServe. This, in turn, helped make the Internet the open forum and communications powerhouse it is today.
Now, proposals being pushed in Congress by corporate Internet service providers like AT&T and Verizon are threatening to force all Internet users back to the bad old days of online gated communities, but with far more drastic consequences.
Whats specifically at stake is whats termed network neutrality. Its one of the founding principles of the Internet, and means that Internet service providers, or those who set up the virtual roads for Internet traffic, cant discriminate about what travels on those roads, nor who sends that traffic.
But, that principle was put at risk when the Supreme Court ruled last year that Internet service providers can (in some circumstances) practice online discrimination. With that window of opportunity now open, telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon are working to promote proposals that may allow them to use their power over users access to the Web to enhance their own profits by preferring certain types of content over others.
But, you might ask, whats the problem? Internet users already pay for access. Thats true, but the control of what content is accessed and how fast its accessed currently lies with Internet users. If network neutrality is abolished, that control would likely change to the Internet service provider, which would prioritize its own content (since more money can be made that way) or the content of its advertisers at the expense of other content elsewhere on the Internet.
Recreating these gated communities may also cause the emergence of the digital equivalent of ghettos, where content, though free or low-cost, would be increasingly hard to find and painfully slow to access. This situation would no doubt dissuade many potential new Internet content providers from even bothering to add their voices to the online dialogue. Indeed, if the corporate new media giants get their way, there is even a possibility that Internet service providers could be allowed to block access to certain kinds of content (for instance, Web sites critical of AT&T or Verizon) altogether.
And theres much more at stake than just the Internet. More and more conventional media, such as television and radio, are becoming digitized, and will thus rely more and more on an Internet infrastructure for transit into peoples homes. The abolition of network neutrality could well impact the future of our entire media landscape.
Fortunately, citizens are organizing across the political spectrum to preserve and maintain network neutrality. One prominent coalition, called Save The Internet (at savetheinternet.com), networks hundreds of groups, bloggers and concerned citizens.
The outcry has made a difference already. The House Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly approvedalong bipartisan linesa proposal requiring Internet service providers to operate their networks in a nondiscriminatory manner. But we need to keep public attention focused on this issue to preserve the free and open net we have grown accustomed to in recent years.
The future of network neutrality impacts all Internet users. If we dont act now, we will live with the equivalent of roadblocks and gated communities on the information superhighway.
Stephen Macek is an assistant professor of speech communication at North Central College. Mitchell Szczepanczyk is an organizer with Chicago Media Action and a frequent contributor to assorted Chicago-area independent media efforts in print, Web, radio and television. Reprinted by permission from the Illinois Editorial Forum, P.O. Box 82, Springfield, IL 62705-0082.
From the July 5-11, 2006, issue