THE BLOG

Net Neutrality and Regulation of the World Wide Web

09/23/2010 11:46 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

America seems obsessed with the notion of "net neutrality", the idea that the web be free of all restrictions... "On content, sites, platforms, on the kinds of equipment that may be attached," and "on the modes of communication."

Since Google, a user, and Verizon, an Internet provider, reached an agreement in principle, according to the Washington Post, in "hope [it] could be used as a model for legislation aimed at preventing telephone or cable companies from delaying or blocking Internet traffic," every politician, every user, every provider, and consumer group has weighed in. The debate over net neutrality has dominated discussion in Washington DC, Congress the FCC and all our media including this newspaper.

Google clearly wanted a wide open market for a wireless Internet, and was open to paying a premium for higher speeds on wired infrastructures. Verizon, like all ISPs was looking for incentives to continue to build out their Internet infrastructure. But the agreement between Google and Verizon is only the beginning.

Congress and the FCC have yet to hash out their version of a compromise, and sooner or later the FCC has to declare all such distribution service as "telecommunications" so as to assure fairness, and to assert jurisdiction as a regulator.

There is a lot of money exchanging hands in the process in Congress, and the Senate wants its share. Even Senator Al Franken, eyeing the pot of gold on the side of those arguing for the status quo, was the first to say "net neutrality, is the First Amendment issue of our time."

While the issue of regulation of the web and the end of the so-called "open Internet" has become a matter of national importance, we should settle this latest issue quickly and make our view of the future of the Internet something we can not only be proud of but also argue for in foreign markets.

Hillary Clinton, wisely, has made development and operation of the Internet a matter of foreign policy. And as secretary of state she can make the arguments clearly and convincingly but only if they make sense. Other countries do not share our "free enterprise " model and have no qualms about regulation.

When it comes to Internet access, speeds vary greatly around the world, as does the cost for basic access. In Japan, Korea and Finland, Internet speeds are blazing fast and cheap compared to those less fortunate users in other countries.

But the idea of different rates for different speeds is on the minds of lawmakers in Spain, Italy, Germany, Russia, and elsewhere in the world. Countries like Italy have already moved to hold Google and its executives personally liable for text, photographs or videos made available on YouTube, thus posing a significant challenge to the company's business model, along with those of other Internet companies like Facebook and Twitter.

And in South Korea last year, Google blocked users of the local version of its YouTube video service from uploading material after the government imposed rules requiring contributors to register with their real names. Why? Because South Korea has made such regulation a matter of first importance.

France enacted a law allowing Internet connections to be cut off if a user is pirating copyrighted material. Germany has rejected that approach, but Britain is watching the outcomes of the law with interest.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is already talking about even tougher measures against file sharing, calling for tests of technology that filters unlicensed music and movies from the Internet.

And Australian Internet service providers suggest that they could soon have the most restrictive Internet regime in the Western world because of proposals pending in their legislature.

China as we know has already forced Google to move its operations to Hong Kong and China's Communist leaders have long tried to balance their desire for a thriving Internet and the economic growth it promotes with their demands for political control.

There are over 3000 Internet police in China regulating what is accessible, restricting access to web sites they deem politically incorrect, or contrary to public order.

Secretary Clinton paid tribute to the power of the Internet both for opening new forums for the exchange of ideas and for fostering social and economic development. "In this context," she said, "the Internet can serve as a great equalizer. By providing people with access to knowledge and potential markets, networks can create opportunity where none exists."

She cannot do it until we have decided how we want the Internet to serve us, and what rules should be put in place to serve not just America but the world in a rapidly changing new global economy.