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Don't let phone giants ruin the Internet

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You should know about Edward Whitacre. He could change your life, and not for the better. Whitacre's the chairman of AT&T -- the giant communications company that's in the process of swallowing up BellSouth -- and if he has his way, the Internet as we know it will be ruined. Whitacre, you see, thinks Web site owners should be forced to pay him an extra fee to guarantee fast connections. It's called "tiered access" and it's a policy that would turn what used to be called the information superhighway into a toll road that would give critical advantages to big-buck corporations.

One of the best things about the Internet is its wide-open creativity, as well as the fact that Joe Citizen's little Web site has the same access to phone lines as a behemoth like www.walmart.com. Over the past decade-plus, that egalitarian quality has allowed formerly small start-up sites such as Salon, YouTube, SecondLife, MySpace and hundreds of others to flourish and become part of our lives. But you can kiss that kind of openness goodbye if the feds OK the tiered-access proposals from Whitacre and his counterparts at Comcast and Verizon. If that happens, sites with a big bankroll (say, www.target.com) would get super-fast connections while small-fry sites that couldn't pay the toll would chug along at a sluggish pace. This is so obviously unfair, you wonder where the AT&Ts of the world get the nerve to propose it. As technology writer Annalee Newitz suggests, "it would be like letting an electricity company cut a deal with GE so that only GE appliances got good current."

That's kind of funny, but unfortunately Whitacre is dead serious. Late last year, he told a reporter from Business Week, "The Internet can't be free. ... For a Google or a Yahoo or a Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [phone lines] for free is nuts!"

If you think this sounds like extortion, you're not the only one -- most content providers, including Internet phone companies, see it that way, too. Consumers are finally starting to speak up, as more of them get the news and realize the giant phone companies' plans would leave users with fewer online choices.

Who could be hurt by tiered access? It's a long list: nonprofits, political advocacy groups, telecommuters, online purchasers who want a bargain. Small businesses and bloggers would generally be out of luck. Ipod owners could find their access to iTunes slowed to a crawl while a company like Time Warner offered its Roadrunner clients a faster connection to a higher-priced service it owned. Your options as a consumer could be hindered by your Internet provider, which could offer the fastest connections to companies that ponied up the ransom money for more bandwidth. Web innovators would be squashed like bugs in the path of big corporations with an interest in protecting the electronic status quo. If tiered access had been in effect a few years ago, Charlotte-based success story www.lendingtree.com probably wouldn't have gotten off the ground.

Fortunately, there is still time to stop the giant phone companies from wrecking the Internet. Whitacre & Co. funnel a lot of campaign contributions to members of Congress, so normally they'd probably get what they want. But they have one problem that leaves them vulnerable on this issue: the tradition of "network neutrality." A central principle of the Internet, network neutrality holds that all users have equal access to phone lines, and providers can't give any users special treatment, even at a price. Network neutrality has been so fundamental to the success of the Internet, even former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell, who usually sided with big business interests, described it as one of the basic rules of "Internet freedom" and the reason the Web has nurtured so much technological creativity.

Last fall, the FCC insisted on a two-year guarantee of network neutrality before approving the AT&T-SBC and Verizon-MCI mergers. They'll probably require the same pledge before approving the AT&T-BellSouth deal, so we probably have until 2008 before Whitacre & Co. could do any serious damage.

The problem, though, is that network neutrality has never been written into US law, which means the giant phone companies still have a chance to push their tiered-access scheme. Here's where you can do something about it. Congress is in the middle of a yearlong process of updating the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and Whitacre & Co. are pushing Congress to keep network neutrality out of the new bill. Luckily for consumers, concerns over the AT&T-BellSouth deal have led lawmakers to produce several drafts of the telecommunications bill that would lock in the principle of network neutrality.

Most politicians assume no one's paying attention to this issue. Let your members of Congress know you are aware of the issue, and tell them how you feel about it. If Whitacre and his friends succeed, the Internet will be centrally controlled by the companies who own the wires, and everyone but mega-corporations will be SOL. Don't let that happen.

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