07/29/2008 02:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Vote for Net Neutrality

Great news this week from the FCC (and I haven't had the chance to say that many times of the last seven years). By a vote of 3-to-2 the Commission has confirmed what many of us have known for sometime -- that it's wrong for Internet providers to discriminate against certain kinds of online traffic. The specific case is about Comcast and their attempt to slow down the traffic of some customers. But the issue at stake -- Net Neutrality -- is much bigger.

Someone commenting on a Matt Stoller post at OpenLeft made this point: "This issue still needs us explaining it to... anyone who will listen." It's a good point, and it's easy for those of us intimately familiar with Net Neutrality to forget that this isn't even on the radar screen for much of the public. But it should be. If the big telecoms (and many Republicans) get their way, the open and free Internet we have all come to take for granted could quickly become not-so-open and not-so-free.

Net Neutrality -- a guiding principle of the Internet since its beginning -- means that content is all treated equally. It means that when I'm reading the New York Times online, my Internet provider lets me download the page the same way I would download, say, the pictures of Harriet Pendelton's surprise 80th birthday party on the website of my town of North Haven, Maine.

But that's not what companies like Comcast and Verizon want. They want the ability to slow down certain kinds of traffic. For example, they might decide that content providers who pay them get full-speed service, while those who don't get relegated to a "slow-lane." So without Net Neutrality, the New York Times might pop up on my screen almost instantly but I might have to wait a while to get to the important stuff (such as Harriet's birthday pictures.)

Think about what this means: small Internet startups might not be able to afford this gatekeeper's fee, and their second-class status could prevent them from competing with companies that have deeper pockets. With Net Neutrality, the level playing field that gave us Google, YouTube and eBay when they were start-ups would suddenly start to tilt in favor of the big, established players.

As president of Common Cause, I joined a coalition of groups ranging from the Christian Coalition to Consumers Union, and we went to Congress with over a million signatures asking that Net Neutrality be made law. Unfortunately Republicans in Congress refused, and without this week's FCC decision, there would have been nothing protecting American consumers from big telecoms who wanted to create a pay-to-play environment.

Two FCC Commissioners in particular -- my friends Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps -- deserve special recognition. As Matt Stoller points out, these two have been fighting the good fight for Net Neutrality and issues like media consolidation. We're lucky to have them at the FCC but all too often they've been blocked by the three Republicans on the Commission.

We need to make Net Neutrality the law. We need to elect a Congress that will make it a priority to keep this important principal intact -- and insure equal and open access to the Internet for all.