Tomorrow is an important day for the future of the Internet. That's when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will cast a crucial vote that could send us down a dangerous and misguided path toward destroying the Internet as we know it. That path could end with an Internet of haves and have-nots, with big corporations deciding who falls into which camp, all based on the amount of money they pay. I'm urging the FCC to take a different course -- one that preserves the Internet as an open marketplace where everyone can continue to participate on equal footing, regardless of one's wealth or power.
Tom Wheeler, the FCC's chairman, has a proposal that would undermine net neutrality, the principle that all Internet traffic must be treated equally. Net neutrality is embedded in the foundational architecture of the Internet, and it has served us well. Because of net neutrality, an email from my constituent in rural Minnesota gets to me as quickly as an email from my bank. Because of net neutrality, the website for the small neighborhood hardware store loads just as quickly as that of a major retail chain. Because of net neutrality, you were able to access this op-ed, even if your Internet provider doesn't like what I have to say.
Net neutrality has made the Internet a platform for innovation and economic growth. For example, YouTube started as a relatively small outfit above a pizzeria in a strip mall. YouTube wanted to compete with Google, which had an online video product called Google Video (later Google Videos). Net neutrality guaranteed that YouTube's and Google's videos would travel to consumers at the same speeds. Google wasn't able to pay for a fast lane or any other unfair advantage. Even though Google was a bigger, wealthier, more established company, it had to compete with YouTube on a level playing field. And YouTube ultimately won because it offered a better product.
That's what net neutrality is all about. There's not one Internet for deep-pocketed corporations and a separate Internet for everyone else -- there's the Internet, and it belongs to all of us. That's the way it's always been. And that's the way it should continue to be.
But the FCC could change all of that by giving big Internet providers -- corporations like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and Verizon -- the power to pick and choose which traffic reaches consumers quickly--and which doesn't. The Chairman's plan would authorize pay-to-play arrangements. Here's how it would work: a big corporation would give the Internet providers extra money, and, in return, the Internet providers would give the corporations priority access on the Internet -- special treatment that wouldn't be available to those who can't afford to pay the gatekeeper. That's not net neutrality; it's greasing the bouncer.
Chairman Wheeler's proposal would put start-ups and small businesses at a huge disadvantage. And the new costs created by this scheme will be passed along to consumers, who already are being squeezed by their cable and Internet bills. Big corporations will win; everyone else will lose. Americans never have tolerated this sort of thing, and we shouldn't start now, especially as the biggest Internet providers are trying to get even bigger through mega-mergers.
There aren't many places left where every American can participate on an equal footing with deep-pocketed corporate interests. Our campaign finance laws are in shambles, giving uber-wealthy, often-anonymous groups free rein to amplify their voices over those of the general population. Our tax code is littered with special benefits for special interests. The rules of our civil justice system have been rewritten to insulate corporations from wrongdoing against workers and consumers. But the Internet remains an arena where the quality of one's products, the value of one's services, and the persuasiveness of one's ideas matter more than the depth of one's pockets. The FCC needs to keep it that way.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post erroneously referred to Google Video (later Google Videos) as Google TV, which is a separate product. The post has been updated accordingly.