The Digital Journalist
Don't Take My Internet From Me

by Ron Steinman

June 2006

By now, you probably have heard there is a movement afoot to charge an entrance fee that would give special treatment on the Internet to those who can afford to pay the freight. Until now, the beauty of the Web has been that it is free and accessible to anyone with a computer. We call this "Net neutrality." It is what keeps the Internet equal to suppliers and users alike. However, some cable and telephone companies want to take away our freedom to surf where, when and how we want. These companies want to create an Internet based on exclusive Web sites that are willing to pay heavy fees to servers that will guarantee they will get priority over everyone else on the Web.

AT&T and Verizon, two of the telephone companies leading the charge, argue that the tiered service would provide them -- yes, them, not you or us -- with the money necessary to increase their ability to compete technically with "streaming video and other high-bandwidth traffic." In techie terms, they would give these paying sites more bandwidth in return for increased dollars. I also read "heavy users would pay more to telecommunications carriers for the large amount of bandwidth they use." This is not quite the same but it translates into big-time users getting preferential treatment according to how much money they have and are willing to spend to be at the head of the line when one logs in. This means there is trouble ahead. If these behemoths get their way, equal treatment on the Internet will die. Is this fair? I think not, but in war, love, commerce and now the Internet, almost nothing is fair.

Those who use the Internet would find doors closed, gates locked, and the necessary speed to access the sites they want, slowed. Instead of normal unhindered passage, these powerful providers want to establish tollbooths along what has been passage on canals normally open to information that has been there at your choice. A person’s ability to go where he or she wants on the Web when desired would rapidly, and perhaps forever, be diminished. Any site paying those new and heavy fees would appear first when you enter the World Wide Web. Phone companies and cable operators would block your normal pathways by first offering the sludge of mass instead of allowing you to use the corridors of your choice how and when you want. It would take, some think, immeasurable time to go where you want. In a medium where speed sometimes counts as much as content, that it is a cardinal sin.

This would result in an Internet that is no longer free. Discrimination based on big money would reign. Mammon, the evil ruler of commerce, would control what you can see and what you want to do only when it allows. It would be the end of democracy, as we know it, on the Web.

Unfortunately there are those in Congress who think ending Net neutrality is a good idea. Maybe they do not use the Internet much. Maybe they are afraid of its power and the freedom it brings. Maybe lobbyists, as usual, are having their way with our elected representatives. Who knows? We do know that the House Energy and Commerce Committee does not see this as a growing threat. As usual in Congressional dealings, though, what is good for a giant is not good for the little guy. This committee appears to be against Net neutrality. If the full House agrees with the committee it will represent yet another giveaway by our elected officials who kowtow and pander to special interests.

Except for the occasional editorial and the rare story delegated to a back page, if at all, there is hardly any reporting on this important issue. Do newspaper publishers and editors, particularly those with Web sites, think it is too esoteric a subject and thus difficult for readers to understand? They had better look around quickly because the smaller sites with less money will face severe difficulty if Congress passes a bill favoring this madness. But wait. In the face of this potential disaster, there might be hope. A bill drafted by two senators, Maine Republican Olympia Snow and North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, sets out new ground rules that would prohibit a system for the few who are powerful and protect the powerless, meaning the rest of us. They want to create legislation that will "force Internet providers to treat all traffic equally." That is what I want. It is what we should all want.

I am not your typical user of the Internet. I am older. I use it for fewer things than many other younger people do. It took me a long time to figure out how to maneuver my way around the Internet. My daughter, who works in online advertising, politely and gently admonishes me for being at times technically inept. I am that, but I know enough about how to pursue what I need without too much difficulty. Mostly I write and research. I type badly but spell-check is a great help and the word processor I use gets me out of a heap of trouble because corrections are easy and my copy usually comes out fairly clean, making it less than difficult for an editor to cope with my sometimes convoluted, and often difficult prose.

I have a long list of bookmarks and favorites I turn to for information I might need. I know how to find what I am looking for reasonably quickly. Without an Internet I can navigate as I want to, I and many others, less or more sophisticated, would be lost.

In the end, the song we must sing together in the loudest voice possible is, "Please don't take my Internet away." Write Congress and the Senate, deluge the White House with your plea and make everyone understand that tying the Internet to a few big holders of Web sites is no way, as my father would say when he got angry with government, to run a railroad.

[To write or call your government representatives about the issue of Net neutrality, here is a helpful list of contact information:

• U.S. Capitol switchboard: 202/224-3121]

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.